At the Met, there is a pair of remarkable and, at first glance, very similar paintings of the same room, with nearly the same view; they are The Open Window (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), 1917–18, and Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), 1918. In a way, they are both paintings of nothing. This could be the room in Roy Lichtenstein’s celebrated 1961 painting in which ace reporter Steve Roper is looking through a hole in the door and exclaiming, “I can see the whole room!…and there’s nobody in it!” The absence of the figure in these paintings is palpable—it’s as if the armchair in which the model should have been seated has been pushed aside to make room for her absence, and for the view of sea and sky out of a window that seems to wear its lace curtains as the model would have worn her artfully revealing dishabille. The second version, a tad larger, shows a bit more of the room and puts the window at a greater distance. The sky is whiter in the second version and its reflection in the open window correspondingly paler, whereas in the first it has been painted nearly the same deep blue as the sea. Perhaps for this reason the most notable difference between these two paintings is that in the first, the room is dominated by the sky and sea at its center, which amount to a single dominant entity, while in the second, as Dorthe Aagesen writes in the exhibition catalog, “the focus shifts to the decor,” above all the green armchair on the left. The earlier painting uses light to collapse the room’s space nearly into a single intransigent plane; the second version opens it up, softening the painting’s impact but letting in more air. It’s a sunnier picture, with a different sense of looseness and spontaneity.
For Matisse, there could never be only one way to interpret a scene; he always recognized that it could have been painted otherwise. ”I do not repudiate any of my paintings,” he famously declared, “but there is not one of them that I would not redo differently, if I had it to redo. My destination is always the same but I work out a different route to get there.” Earlier on, he would have been more likely to start with a more conventional, easygoing approach, painting his way toward a stark and unyielding work; at the Met, for example, there is the sweet, almost anecdotal 1914 view of Notre-Dame that is usually in the collection of the Kunstmuseum Solothurn in Switzerland, hung alongside the far more famous, nearly abstract one he painted a little later the same year, which belongs to New York’s MoMA. Or observe, likewise, the pairing of Interior with Goldfish and the slightly later Goldfish and Palette, both also from 1914. The difference between the two 1918 views of the room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage is far subtler, but what’s more telling is that the development from one to the next runs in the opposite direction: having learned how to be obdurate, Matisse was teaching himself again how to yield. Earlier, Matisse had been determined, as he said, “to risk losing charm in order to obtain greater stability.” Now he’d become fascinated by charm, and the way it put a classical sense of stability in doubt, redirecting the viewer’s attention from the compositional center to its “decor.”
But the story doesn’t end there, because there is a third painting of the same room, also from 1918. Yet one wouldn’t have mistaken it for another version of the same view: it’s a bigger painting and an altogether bigger statement. Interior with a Violin (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage) shows the same room—the same window, chair on the left (now with an open violin case resting on it, revealing its treasure), dresser on the right. But despite the change of scale, it shows less of the room. The focus is tighter, the vantage point higher—we can see a bit of beach out the window, which wasn’t visible in the other two paintings, but the ceiling’s been cut out of the frame, making the room feel much less boxy but also somehow smaller, almost constricted, and the froufrou of the curtains has been reduced to a minimum. The great change is in color, or rather in tone: this is a dark picture. One of the blinds has been closed, the other half-closed, and the space is bathed in shadows. Yet miraculously, this darkness is somehow luminous. “In that painting,” Matisse said, ”I painted light in black.”
As different as Interior with a Violin may be from its two precursors, Matisse couldn’t have painted it without having painted them. If you look back at the two earlier paintings, you’ll notice a detail that might not have registered before: the dark bar around the top of the curtains. When Matisse showed Renoir his paintings, the master was thunderstruck by the bar. “How do you do that?” Renoir exclaimed. “If I used a black like that in a painting, it would jump out at you.” In fact, the Impressionists had more or less banished black from their palette; for them, it was not a color, and its use would have destroyed the unity of painting, whose basis was color. Matisse realized that he could take what he wanted from the Impressionists because the foundations of his art were different, and more capacious. Interior with a Violin is his proclamation of that discovery. Though his idol Renoir would have been horrified to hear this, Impressionism for Matisse was at one with the “fake, absurd, terrific, delicious” charm of a hotel in Nice, which he could enjoy or abstain from as he pleased.
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