Henri Matisse referred to his painting the Harmony in Red almost dismissively, calling it a “decorative panel.” And like a piece of ornamental furniture, he scattered the massive canvas with arabesques and floral pattern — a dining room scene with no conventional focal point and a strangely flattened perspective.
But the paintings hallmark flood of powerful crimson is radically different than the original painting.
In 1908, the Russian art collector Sergey Shchukin commissioned a painting called “Harmony in Blue” for the dining room of his Moscow mansion. Shchukin liked brash art, having once said “If a picture gives you a psychological shock, buy it.” And in 1908 Matisse was leading the aggressively bold, colorful Fauvist movement, creating some of the most energetic work around.
So Matisse prepared his canvas in his Paris studio overlooking a monastery garden, and laid down the first draft of the painting in blue. But something had gotten under his skin — it was the color red. Matisse had an obsession with red that he himself did not fully understand, saying, “Where I got the color red—to be sure, I just don’t know, I find that all these things … only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red.”
Shchukin had already taken possession of “Harmony in Blue” when Matisse demanded that he revise the work. Changing the name and obliterating the blue with an overpowering red, Matisse kicked off a series of bold red paintings, including The Red Studio and the Red Interior series. The Dessert: Harmony in Red is now considered by critics to be one of the most powerful examples of fauvist art.
So remember, follow your gut and embrace the radical edit.
Reed Enger, "The Dessert: Harmony in Red," in Obelisk Art History, Published February 16, 2015; last modified May 19, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/henri-matisse/the-dessert-harmony-in-red/.