On this day in 1961, New Yorkers filing into the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition “The Last Works of Henri Matisse” would have been forgiven for not noticing that one of the most elegant of the great artist’s paper cuts, Le Bateau (“The Boat”) was hanging upside down. The critics, viewers, guards, esteemed curators responsible for capsising the sailboat, and even Matisse’s own son had not noticed the error.
Le Bateauis a sparsely arranged picture executed in 1953, a year before Matisse’s death. It is comprised of paper cuts forming a blue boat sailing on a gusty day with clouds and the water outlined with graceful, yet assertive, curving purple lines. The bottom half of the picture shows the loosely styled reflection of the boat and clouds—although if you were to have visited the museum’s exhibition in its early days, this, of course, would have been the top half.
For forty-seven days Matisse’s picture remained on display upside down, delighting over 100,000 oblivious visitors. However, a determined 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 error. 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 employees were home. She decided to contact the New York Times, who ran the story on 5 December 1961–the day after an embarrassed director of the exhibition righted the picture.
According to the museum’s curators, Le Bateauhad 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 Bateauis now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art–and hangs right side up.