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The Pink Tablecloth (c.1924–1925)

by Henri Matisse (1869–1954)

Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: H 60.3 x W 81 cm

Henri Matisse often painted traditional subject matter, and this still life is no exception – however, his innovation was to paint them in new and experimental ways. This still life is abstracted (we can very easily recognise the objects as taken from real life, however their forms have been simplified to such an extent that we no longer find them believable or realistic). In simplifying shapes and removing the illusion of three-dimensional space, the artist emphasises his use of colour as a decorative tool, and as an expression of mood. Rather than disguise his brushwork, Matisse has announced his mark-making and revealed the process of painting and his feelings through colour and shape.

Spatially, there is a degree of conflict here as some objects follow the rules of perspective (e.g. the ellipsis on the fruit bowl), while others appear two-dimensional because they are not modelled in three-dimensional space. Do any of the objects cast a shadow? The tabletop is slightly angled to indicate recession, but what is the actual effect?

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

The Pink Tablecloth

The Pink Tablecloth c.1924–1925

Henri Matisse (1869–1954)

Glasgow Life Museums

Show your students this painting and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe what is on the tabletop and in the background.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views.  

Tip: in class, use the zoom feature on the image below to look closer at details. You can open a full-screen version by clicking here.



Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • Would we put anything breakable and/or valuable on this tabletop?
  • If you were transported into the painting, what might you be able to smell?
  • How would you describe the mood of this painting and why?
  • Is this a realistic painting? Why or why not? Does a painting have to look realistic for it to be described as good? Is how a painting makes us feel more important than how it looks?
  • Do you think people thought Matisse's painting was very good when he painted it?

Activity: watch and discuss

In the following film, writer and broadcaster Denise Mina uses her own 'Superpower of Looking' to explore Matisse's The Pink Tablecloth.

Watch the film with your students and discuss the following questions:

  • Did Denise see anything you hadn't spotted yet?
  • What else did you notice about the painting when watching the film?
  • Denise said she loves looking at the painting and it reminds her of being on holiday. How does it make you feel? What does it remind you of?


Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We'd suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):




Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.


Comparison activity

Compare The Pink Tablecloth with either of the following still lifes:

In order to support the discussion, you may wish to focus on the following areas of the Superpower Kit: Composition, Colour and Materials & Techniques.

Cross-curricular activities: Art & Design and Drama

Jeremy Deller's Souped Up Tea Urn & Teapot (Dartford 2004) is an example of a still life composed using real-life objects arranged in a specific way.

Extend into an Art & Design lesson by tasking your students to work in groups to create their own real still life sculpture made from found objects placed on a table in class. They may wish to use objects from your school or bring in objects from home (with permission!). They could focus on a certain colour or theme with what they select as artist Ania Bas suggests in this colour sculpture activity.

Your students can expand on this into a Drama lesson using their still life composition as a set of props. In their groups, task them with creating a cast of characters who use the objects in their still life as part of an improvised or pre-scripted scene. Ask the groups to perform their scenes to each other and feedback.

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