Why did this painting cause a scandal?
Femme au Chapeau, or Woman with a Hat, is a portrait of Henri Matisse’s wife, Amelie, and is today one of the best known works of art in the Museum’s collection. But it caused a commotion in 1905, when the Paris art world came face to face with the bold colors of modern painting in the great annual exhibition, the Autumn Salon. Curator Janet Bishop gives the full story.
Matisse had been working on a very large landscape at the time and didn’t think that he could finish it. So this painting was actually made in—in some haste. And when his colleagues and the salon president saw the piece, they had encouraged him not to show it, for fear that he would really embarrass himself by putting this on public view. But he went ahead and did it. And the—the critical reaction was—was strong, and one of the critics, Louis Vauxcelles, referred to this painting and paintings by Matisse’s colleagues as les fauves, or wild beasts.
The moniker stuck, and today many artists and scholars consider the work of these so-called “Fauvists” to be a turning point in the development of a modern art. But many viewers of his day couldn’t accept Matisse’s riotous colors, and the raw, loose way he applied paint.
He had been painting with a sort of non-objective palette, using colors that didn’t correspond to observed reality. But it was one thing to do that with a landscape, for instance; but to do that for a woman’s face was really utterly shocking. To use this bold slash of green across his wife’s forehead, a slash of green for her nose, you know, this dab of yellow at—at its tip. Matisse was purportedly asked what his wife would actually have been wearing when she posed. And he replied, facetiously or not, “Well, black, of course.”
This is Femme au Chapeau, or Woman with a Hat, a vertical portrait of a woman made with patches of wild color and rough, energetic brushstrokes. Henri Matisse painted it in oil in 1905. His signature is in the top left corner of the canvas. The painting is just over 2 and a half feet tall and almost 2 feet wide. The woman’s enormous hat fills the upper third of the canvas. Her face anchors the center, and her dress fills the bottom.
The woman is seated in profile with her face turned toward us. Her giant hat dwarfs her; it is nearly twice the size of her face. The wide blue brim sits straight across her forehead. It is topped with exuberant puffs of oranges, greens and blues, swirling around each other. The colors might represent flowers or feathers in her hat.
The woman’s red hair is pulled up, a small patch peeking out from under the wide brim of her hat. She is the artist’s wife Amelie. We know she was a Caucasian French woman, but here, her face is rendered in streaks of green, and blots of gray, mauves, and yellows. Her forehead is marked by a horizontal green smear, possibly the shadow from the brim of her hat. A long, green vertical streak defines her nose, with a small blob of pale yellow marking its tip. The curve of her upper lip is tomato red; her bottom lip is a slash of peachy pink. Just below her bottom lip is a short strip of light green – below that, another slash of pink defines her chin.
The woman leans back in a chair, holding what appears to be an open fan. She wears long gloves painted in green, speckled with pink details resembling embroidery. Her fan is composed of thick splashes of white and peach, with splotches of violets and greens. Behind her, soft washes of pink, lilac, yellow, green and coral fill the background.
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