Monday, December 1, 2008

Woman with a Hat

Matisse painted this portrait of his wife in 1905 and showed it at the Salon d'Automne, where everybody hated it and made fun of it. Either in spite of or because of that, Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo bought it there and then. After a while it passed into the hands of Sarah and Michael Stein, who eventually brought the painting to San Francisco. Still later on, the Steins sold the picture to their friend, the philanthropist Elise Haas. And in the fullness of time Mrs. Haas gave the picture to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it has been on permanent display for many decades.

I have always hated it. Just like the boorish Parisian crowds at the Salon d'Automne. And I must have looked at it on 50 separate visits, but never for long, because the green and purple in proximity always set my teeth on edge. Less than a month ago I stood in front of this painting with a friend and referred to my settled dislike of it.

Then yesterday I came across an essay in the London Review of Books by high-quality art historian T.J. Clark entirely devoting his powerful attention to this same painting.

I truly cannot think of the last time when a work of criticism persuaded me to reverse a cherished prejudice, but by the time I had finished Clark's essay it was clear to me that I had never understood or really even tried to understand this painting. I must return soon to the museum and go up to the green-and-purple Matisse and apologize.