The Conversation

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Henri Matisse, The Conversation, 1909

The Conversation
has a simple title for such a complex work. Matisse juxtaposes the lush, lazy repose of the outdoors with stark confrontation, warmth with cold. The lack of defined facial expressions complicates the emotions, emphasizing other details of the two primary figures' appearances. Everything that can be different between them is different. Their sex, clothing color and quality, tension, and even their detail levels sharply oppose each other. As the painting supposedly reveals the relationship between the artist and his wife, perhaps the best way to begin to understand the painting is to learn about its maker.

Henri Matisse was born in a small town in France. He had a strict upbringing, and his parents expected him to become a successful lawyer. Matisse traveled to Paris for law school and passed the bar but soon decided to instead pursue art. Although he had initial difficulties with his dream (as he failed his first entrance exam for the national École des Beaux-Arts), he eventually entered into higher art schooling and explored many different styles, winning commissions. In 1898 he married his wife, a forward-thinking, economically-advantaged woman with whom he had little in common but a love of art. Matisse created The Conversation at the request of a Russian client, although the new owner's house was sacked during the Russian Revolution and the painting now hangs in the Hermitage.

The painting can be classified as a part of the Fauve movement, characterized by bold colors and broad brush strokes and movement that show a self-consciousness as a painting, independent from other mediums. This style gives Matisse leeway to explore different shapes and compositions while retaining unity throughout by controlling hues and textures.

Some art historians regard the seated woman as exemplary of old-fashioned portraiture, while Matisse appears more modern and geometric in form. Their lifestyles conflict more deeply than their appearances, a difference between wealthy elegance and lower class aspirations. And yet, neither Matisse nor his wife seems out of place in the piece. 
This painting represents unity between opposing lifestyles through a common love of art, the relieving of tensions in the pursuit of creative purpose.

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