Celebrated biographer of Matisse Hilary Spurling explores the artist’s interest in music and his painting, La Leçon de piano, from the Impressionist & Modern Art sale on 3 February.

Highly musical, a friend of musicians all his life, himself an amateur performer on the violin, Matisse might well have become a professional musician if he hadn’t been badly taught as a boy by a teacher who made lessons a misery. Musical instruments in his paintings carried a particular resonance ever after, often marking times of transition in his career, representing perhaps a path he could have taken but didn’t.


When he moved to Nice in the early 1920s and acquired for the first time a flat of his own, one of the first things he did was to buy a second-hand piano to put in it. In the winter of 1923-4, he constructed round it a sequence of paintings, including La Leçon de piano, from the same handful of elements: the piano itself with its vase of flowers, the red rug, the pink armchair, the big brown armoire in the background, and the bold red screen made from a Moroccan wall-hanging with a pattern of pierced arches. The human figures in the first of this series – the girl in her prim long-sleeved, high-necked blue dress, the two boys in their striped school tunics – barely exist except as vertical elements in a radiant chromatic whole.

HENRI MATISSE, LA LEÇON DE PIANO, 1923. ESTIMATE £12,000,000–18,000,000.

She was a young model called Henriette Darricarrère, who had already been working for two years in what would prove to be an exceedingly fruitful, seven-year partnership with Matisse. The two boys were her younger brothers, Paul and Jean. Henriette was an accomplished violinist herself, trained at the local Conservatoire (where Jean followed her). Later Matisse taught her to paint. He played string duets with her when sessions in the studio went well, and her violin can be seen, in another canvas from the same series, hanging alongside his on the far side of the armoire. The two shared a piano teacher, a highly respected concert impresario in Nice, François Eréna, which perhaps explains the painting’s title (and also why one of Henriette’s brothers seems so much more interested than the other in following his sister’s playing).

On one level The Piano Lesson is a simple domestic scene of everyday life in the studio, on another a sumptuously orchestrated ensemble of rich reds and pinks. In the context of Matisse’s life and work, it is on the deepest level a powerful pictorial metaphor for art itself.


Hilary Spurling is the author of The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse, Volume One: The Early Years, 1869-1908 (Penguin, 1998) and Matisse The Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, Volume Two: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954 (Penguin, 2005).