The Eyes

The Eyes

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Case of the Upside Down Matisse at MoMA

Le Bateau (The Boat) | 1953
Museum of Modern Art
[Image shown right side up.]

In October and November of 1961, only one person among the 116,000 visitors to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition "The Last Works of Henri Matisse" noticed that one of the most elegant of the great artist’s late career cutouts, Le Bateau ("The Boat") was hanging upside down. The esteemed curators responsible for capsizing the sailboat, and even the artist's own son, the New York art dealer Pierre Matisse, had not noticed the error. 

Le Bateau, executed in 1953, is comprised of paper cutouts forming a blue boat sailing on a windy day with clouds, and the water outlined with graceful, yet assertive, curving purple lines. The bottom half of the picture shows a stylized reflection of the boat and clouds. 

“For the last forty-seven days, a picture by the
French master Henri Matisse has been hanging
in the Museum of Modern Art—upside down."
New York Times | December 5, 1961

However, a stockbroker named Genevieve Habert could not believe that Matisse would have arranged the picture in such a way as to give more detail to the reflection than the boat itself. An admirer of Matisse’s work, she visited the exhibition multiple times and on the third visit bought a catalogue, which, showing the picture correctly displayed, validated her assumption. 

Habert approached a nearby guard to notify him of the mistake. The guard responded rather amusingly, "You don’t know what’s up and you don’t know what’s down and neither do we." Undeterred by this modernist babble, Habert made her way to the information desk, but as it was a Sunday, the curatorial staff were not available. She decided to contact the New York Times, who ran the story on December 5a day after an embarrassed director of the exhibition righted the picture. 

According to the museum’s curators, Le Bateau had been hung incorrectly in the past as indicated by deep screw holes in the frame, which along with the labels had led them unwittingly to commit their error. On closer inspection, however, screw holes were discovered on the correct half of the frame as well, indicating that at least once the sailboat had headed in the right direction. 

Le Bateaunow part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Arthangs right side up.

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