In 1919, Matisse left Nice temporarily for London to design the costumes and décor for Serge Diaghilev's ballet Le chant du rossignol. When he returned in December of that year, his Southern paradise was not as he had left it. His mentor Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whom Matisse had visited "all through the spring of 1919 in his house, Les Colettes, at Cagnes" had died just a week before (H. Spurling, Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, London, p. 216). Matisse's usual room at the Hôtel de la Méditerranée was unavailable, and the new room had smaller windows and no balcony. His favorite young model Antoinette Arnoud had become otherwise employed, leaving Matisse with a succession of lesser subjects. And in late January 1920, Matisse's mother died, while his daughter Marguerite's laryngo-tracheal problems worsened.
It is no wonder, then, that the artist took comfort in all those things that "stimulated him most: female models, secluded interiors, flowers, and, above all, light" (N. Watkins, "Matisse: The Early Years in Nice," The Burlington Magazine, 1987, p. 273). If Matisse once famously likened the effect of a visually-pleasing painting to "a good armchair which provides relaxation," the armchair in the present painting can be seen as the artist's own respite from real-life concerns. Indeed, the empty seat in the canvas's upper left seems to beckon the viewer, offering a place of rest within the room's sumptuous surroundings.
In his essay "Matisse and the Metaphysics of Decoration," Jack Flam points to "the interaction between various levels of materiality in Matisse's painting," which creates "an interpenetration between the imaginary pictorial world of the cloth and the tangible world of real objects" (in Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2004, pp. 34 and 37). In the present work, this idea is illustrated by the close visual relationship between the carpet's decorative floral pattern and the real flowers in the vase on the table. Both are executed through the same combination of short strokes and quick dabs. The real flowers' cheerful yellow, however, contrasts with the deeper tones of the rug. These warm reds and pinks can be seen as a tribute to the work of Renoir, Matisse's recently deceased mentor.
The combination of this floral carpet with the room's red and white striped tablecloth creates a lively juxtaposition. The stripes do find, however, a soothing parallel with the vertical lines at the base of the central chair. This striped tablecloth can be seen in a number of Matisse's canvases of the period, and tracing it throughout his oeuvre is as instructive as it is amusing. In Le peintre et son modèle, intérieur d'atelier from the previous year (fig. 1), this cloth becomes part of an even busier rhythm, and sets off a nude model whose her arms stay unabashedly at her sides, instead of protectively folded. In Le petit déjeuner, also from 1920 (fig. 2), the tablecloth is moved to the extreme foreground, while the decorative floral pattern is shifted from carpet to wallpaper. As in the present painting, the model seems almost caught between these two aggressively dynamic designs. If scholars have often interpreted Matisse's decorative patterns as music, then the model's simple white shift represents a note of silence.
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, Le peintre et son modèle, intérieur d'atelier, 1919. Private collection, New York.
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Le petit déjeuner, 1920. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Samuel S. White III and Vera White Collection.