We know that Woman with a Hat was painted, at speed, towards the end of summer in 1905; a larger, more elaborate landscape painting, which Matisse had intended as the lynchpin of his exhibit at the Salon, had turned out to be unfinishable in the time remaining. Leo Stein said later that Matisse dared come only once to the Salon d’Automne to see his painting in situ, for fear of scoffers, and that Madame Matisse never came at all. Denis was not the only fellow-artist to join the hue and cry. The German painter Hans Purrmann, looking back later to his days as Matisse’s pupil and ally, tells the story of Matisse’s studio colleagues asking the painter ‘what kind of hat and what kind of dress were they that this woman had been wearing which were so incredibly loud in colour. And Matisse, exasperated, answered “Black, obviously”.’
It was a joke. But the joke was a good one; and therefore it concentrated an amount of conscious and unconscious thinking in a single reversal of terms. The joke set me thinking straight away of Baudelaire’s choice of black as the bourgeoisie’s prime colour, possessing its own ‘poetic beauty, which expresses the soul of the age; an immense cortège of professional mourners, politicians in mourning, lovers in mourning, bourgeois in mourning.
more from the LRB here.