‘The Piano Lesson’ by Matisse; ‘Las Meninas’ by Velazquez: Twins Separated at Birth?

THE DAILY PIC: At MoMA, 'The Piano Lesson' by Matisse echoes Velazquez's self-declared masterpiece.


THE DAILY PIC (#1634): I can’t stand the overused term “masterpiece,” but I’ll happily use it of Henri Matisse’s Piano Lesson, one of the truly great pictures at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I went back to it for the umpteenth time the other day when my art-looking buddy Arden Reed came through town, and it easily kept our attention for a half hour or more, even with all the Modern’s other sights beckoning to us. (Arden is about to become a much-cited expert on dawdling with works of art.)

As we studied the picture, we were suddenly struck by its deep echoes of another supreme painting that neither one of us had ever thought to pair it with: Las Meninas by Velazquez, painted 350 years earlier. (Apologies to the scholar somewhere who wrote an entire PhD on the pairing.)

We tallied up parallels: The diminutive figure gazing into the scene from the rear background in both works; the peculiar slash of green in the Matisse, backed by a grid of batons, echoing Velazquez’s angled easel and canvas and stretcher bars; the Infanta, and the piano student, both staring out at us as we look in on them; even maybe the pair of parents implied in both pictures as onlookers. And then of course there are the matching proportions, sheer scale and palpable ambition present in both paintings.

I once argued at length that Las Meninas was carefully designed to function as a polemical assertion of its own excellence. Its echoes in The Piano Lesson carry that polemic over into the Matisse. (©2016 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

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