Mme Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
Painted in 1939, Figure assise et le torse grec (la gandoura) is a luminous, colourful painting that provides an insight into Matisse's lyrical world, and also into his working methods. There is a spontaneity with which he has rendered some of the forms, for instance of the plant in the background and the 'gandoura', the Levantine garment worn by the model in the foreground. This item of clothing, combined with the philodendron shown behind, give a hint of the exoticism, the Ottoman sensuality, that Matisse conjured into existence in his studio. This picture, painted in the extensive, double-room studio that he had only recently converted in the Hotel Régina in Nice, shows some of the artist's trusted possessions, including the antique Roman copy of a Greek torso which featured in several of Matisse's paintings.
Matisse's pictures are intended to be expressive, to convey sense through sight. The harmonious combination of colours, with the yellow, the green and the lilac in particular, appear to prefigure the transitional paintings of Mark Rothko, which would be created less than a decade later. Here, they combine to striking effect, revealing the master-colourist at work. Matisse was concerned with capturing and conveying beauty, and shunned the over-intellectualised pursuits of some other artists of his era. 'I work without a theory,' he explained. 'I am conscious only of the forces I use, and I am driven by an idea that I really only grasp as it grows with the picture' (Matisse, quoted in H. Spurling, Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, London, 2005, pp. 372-73). This combination of the search for beauty and the almost organic development of the picture are clearly apparent in Figure assise et le torse grec (la gandoura).
This concern with harmony and beauty were all the more central to Matisse's work during the late 1930s because of the tensions that surrounded aspects of his life on both the personal and the wider national level. For the world was on the brink of war, and Matisse was hugely aware of this. Indeed, Nice, only shortly before Figure assise et le torse grec (la gandoura) was painted, had almost been evacuated because of a feared invasion that on that occasion did not materialise. Likewise, Matisse's own domestic situation was fraught, as his wife, long an invalid, had had an immense improvement. She was angered to find that many of the areas of Matisse's life, including the organisation and arrangements that went on around him in order to ensure that there was little turbulence in his little protected artistic universe, were controlled by his assistant-- and her former minder-- Lydia Delectorskaya. This young Russian woman, who had known little of Matisse's fame or art, had become indispensable in his life, helping him both inside and outside the studio as well as acting as an important muse who had even brought about to a great extent the revival of his easel painting. Mme. Matisse appears to have offered an ultimatum to the artist: either Lydia or she would have to go, and he would have to choose. More than ever, Matisse's art provided him a zone of solace. This picture, dating from January 1939, may not show Lydia, as she had been recently released from the Matisse family's service, although she would return, providing a vital crutch to the artist, following his imminent divorce. Matisse's paintings were intended to spread their sense of beauty and harmony, to make the world a better place, and at no time was this noble quest more crucial, on a personal and a global scale, than at the beginning of 1939.
Lydia was to have a privileged perspective from which to see the master at work, and her own accounts of his techniques and habits in the studio are invaluable. Matisse, in order to capture and translate his world in oils, worked from life, transferring his own emotions, his own aesthetic appreciation of the view of the world before him, in this case, a corner of his studio more directly. 'In contrast to some artists, Henri Matisse never took photographs (nor had them taken) in anticipation of an eventual painting,' Lydia explained,
'For easel pictures, he always worked from Nature. He needed the exaltation with which he responded to the sight and proximity of flowers, brightly-coloured materials, juicy fruit and the female body which he was going to attempt to sublimate... His easel almost on top of his subject, he generally painted seated within two meters of the latter as if to be immersed in its atmosphere.'
'I heard him say, more than once,
'A cake seen through a store window doesn't make your mouth water as much as when you enter and it's right under your nose...'' (L. Delectorskaya, With apparent ease... Henri Matisse: Paintings from 1935-1939, trans. O. Tourkoff, Paris, 1988, pp. 22-23).