R.S. Thomas Responds to Henri Matisse’s “Portrait of a Girl in a Yellow Dress”

Henry YellowMy last post ended when my mind hit a wall while chasing a poem by R. S. Thomas about a painting by Henri Matisse.

I mentioned my plan to be in London later this month, said I was looking forward to seeing an exhibit titled Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Tate Modern, then added: Speaking of Matisse, didn’t Thomas write a poem about one of his paintings?

The wall has given way, revealing the poem, which is called “Portrait of a Girl in a Yellow Dress – Henri Matisse.” It follows Thomas’s meditation on Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” in his book titled Ingrowing Thoughts (1985), which exhibits poems dealing with works of art he found in two of Herbert Read’s books on twentieth-century painting.

Matisse’s young women sits with her back to a window, giving Thomas his opening line – a line that allows the poet to suggest that artists use windows as backdrops, while poets use windows as outlooks. Certainly, that is the case with Thomas’s “The View from the Window”:

Like a painting it is set before one,
But less brittle, ageless; these colours
Are renewed daily with variations
Of light and distance that no painter
Achieves or suggests. . . .

So is this post going to get to Matisse, or is this whole Matisse thing a teaser?

No, here’s Thomas’s take on Matisse’s painting:

Windows in art
……….. are to turn the back
on. Facing the public
she challenges it to prefer her
……….. to the view. The draught
cannot put out
……….. ……….. her flame: yellow
……….. dress, yellow
……….. ……….. (if we could come close
enough) eyes; hands
……….. that, after the busyness
of their migrations between cheek
……….. and dressing table, lipstick
and lip, have found in the lap’s
……….. ……….. taffeta a repose
whose self-consciousness the painter
……….. was at pains not to conceal.

A painter creates a painting, leaving it to us to see what we can see in it. A poet creates a poem, leaving it to us to discover what we hear in the reading of it.

We have Matisse’s painting and Thomas’s response to it. Now the interplay between them can be a way that we read our self.


Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“Like a painting it is set before one” – “The View from the Window,” Poetry for Supper (1958), 27.

“Windows in art” – “Portrait of a Girl in a Yellow Dress – Henri Matisse,” Ingrowing Thoughts (1985), 10.


4 thoughts on “R.S. Thomas Responds to Henri Matisse’s “Portrait of a Girl in a Yellow Dress”

    • I agree. Now I’m eager to see Matisse’s late cut-outs at the Tate Modern. From what I’ve seen, they remind me of his stained glass windows at a glorious little chapel in Vence.

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