Coffee (art) History: Laurette’s Head With A Coffee Cup

I’ve been thinking about the influence of coffee in art history recently. Not just its obvious influence of powering many late night painting sessions, and that maybe some works of Jackson Pollock could be explained by one too many cups of coffee. But what about coffee as the subject? Have artists through the ages appreciated it as much as we do?

The answer I came to is no. Not really. Not as the hero of the piece in any major way. Sure there’s thousands of still lifes dedicated to a coffee pot, but even that they’re just trying to show off their own prowess of capturing light, movement of colour and blah blah blah. But you can’t blame them really. You and I love coffee for so many reasons, but to look at, particularly before the current latte art movement, it was just a cup of brown liquid. 

But what I did find fascinating was in what contexts it did pop up: in the background of a farmhouse scene, on the table of a Russian business meeting, served on a platter to aristocrats, being mulled over by ladies who lunch. 

Coffee was everywhere, and with everyone. And it was in ‘Laurette’s Head With A Coffee Cup.’

It’s by one of my favourite painters, a guy called Matisse. You may have heard of him, first name Henri? Had a solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW earlier this year? And the Tate beore that, and every major art gallery that could afford it before that? He’s a big deal. 

I’m no art critique, so what I like about him is pretty simple, big colour, big shapes, lively, fun, not taking art too seriously but was a formidable game changer of the art world around him. I love that at one of his earliest exhibitions, a critic insulted the show by calling Matisse and his friends “Donatello au milieu des fauves!” (Donatello among the wild beasts) and so of course they named the movement that followed Fauvism. Cheeky. I love that later in life he ‘pained with scissors’, cutting out shapes, often on huge mural like scales. He played with colour, pattern and movement, and in his almost childlike medium of paper collage, his works command a power and celebration of human form and beauty. Though not by all, at the time at least – apart from being called wild beasts, his ‘nu bleu’ – a portrait of a nude, unflattering compared to the soft, glowing nude renditions popular at the time, was burned in effigy in 1913. Seems a bit of an overreaction. Anyway it seems he recovered, his Blue Nude series pays homage to that portrait, and became some of his best known works. 

During a recent flick through his collection, I came across this painting, Laurette with a coffee cup. It’s quite unlike my favourite paintings of his (;The Snail’ is my fave, in case you were wondering), it’s subdued, it isn’t wild, it isn’t paper cut out, Laurette hasn’t been painted with rose coloured glasses, but by golly do I want to be her in this portrait! Matisse has captured a languid, sensual, lackadaisical, indulgent moment on a sunny Parisian afternoon, a women with nothing to do but lay about in the sun-soaked linen, and drink coffee. 

And if there’s a better way to portray the feeling one should have while drinking coffee, I’d very much like to see it.