When you look at a picture, what do you see first? The subject? In this picture of his family by the French artist Henri Matisse, do you notice first of all the black and white checkerboard? Or Matisse's two sons, Pierre and Jean, one moving a piece, the other thinking hard about his next move? Or do you see the artist's daughter Marguerite before anything else, standing on the right? If I could show you a reproduction of this painting in color, your eye would be caught by the bright yellow cover of the book she carries, and her bright emerald-green shoes. But perhaps it is Matisse's wife doing embroidery on the left who stands out.
On the other hand, you will notice that it is not just the main people and things in the picture that are important. It is a picture full of patterns (and colors). The carpet, the seats, the wallpaper, and even the tiled fireplace are like a field of flowers. Only the three children are not decorated with patterns: The two boys are in plain red sweaters and shorts, the girl in a plain black dress.
So what you might expect to be ``background'' in this picture actually stands out because it is so full of little colored decorations, and the people, whom you'd expect would interest Matisse most, are so simply painted that they become less important. Not even the features of their faces matter very much. Matisse has just lightly painted their eyes, noses, and mouths, as if they were no more than a pattern of lines on their skin. You wouldn't recognize them if you met them in the street. He has made much more fuss over the carpet than he has over his own wife's face!
Matisse explained it this way. He said that when he painted, for instance, a woman, ``Above all, I do not create a woman, I make a picture.'' He felt very strongly as a painter that it was the painting he had to give most of his attention to, and that the subject took a back seat in comparison. So he wanted his picture to be interesting in every part, and not just have some of its obvious features stand out.
He loved colorful old Persian paintings and Islamic decorations. He learned from them that big spaces in pictures are not what matters most. Perspective to describe spaces began to interest him less and less.
What mattered was that the colors painted on the flat surface of the painting should have happy and effective relationships with one another - like notes in a song, or like the flowers arranged in the vases on the mantelpiece. Or like different members of the same family.
``The Artist's Family'' (1911), by Henri Matisse, belongs to the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. Until Nov. 14, it is on exchange-loan to the Villa Favorita in Lugano, Switzerland, in an exhibition of 40 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from Moscow and Leningrad.