Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work
Matisse's Nu à la serviette blanche has been featured in important exhibitions in Europe and America, including the 1970 centenary show in Paris and the landmark retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1992. This work is certainly among the finest--and it is arguably the most prescient--of the exploratory figure paintings that Matisse executed during the period from 1900 through 1904. This phase culminated in the summer of 1905 with the Fauve canvases that instigated the first modernist furor of the new century when they were shown later that year at the Salon d'Automne. At various points in his first decade as a painter Matisse experimented with elements that would eventually coalesce into the Fauve look: the Corsican landscapes of 1898, and certain still-lifes of 1899 and 1900 contain the unmistakable signs of later developments. Few canvases, however, and none of the early figure paintings, are so strikingly proto-Fauve as Nu à la serviette blanche. It stands apart from other works of the years 1902-1903, and clearly foreshadows the revolutionary Fauve canvases that followed a couple of years later--indeed, it makes them seem virtually inevitable.
This painting is all the more remarkable because in 1902-1903 Matisse overcame, through sheer strength of will, an almost ruinous string of adversities in his private life, which, if he had been a man of lesser will and character, might have put an end to his career as an artist. Jack Flam has called this early period the "years of struggle" (op. cit., p. 78), while Alfred H. Barr, Jr. singled out 1902-1903 as Matisse's "dark years" (in Matisse: His Art and his Public, New York, 1951, p. 50), in reference to the conservatively somber tonalities that he adopted in most of his paintings during this time, in an effort to make them more attractive to buyers and the Salon jury. With the publication of Hilary Spurling's The Unknown Matisse (op. cit.), we now have a more thorough understanding of the personal and family difficulties that confronted the artist during this period, and how he overcame them through a resolute and unyielding commitment to his art.
In May 1902 the Humbert scandal broke, dominating the headlines much as the Madoff swindle has done today. Frédéric and Thérèse Humbert had for years leveraged their extensive business dealings against a non-existent legacy, and fled Paris only hours before their fraudulent scheme was uncovered, leaving behind 11,000 investors who had lost their life savings. Armand and Catherine Parayre, the parents of Matisse's wife Amélie, both worked for the Humberts, and were implicated in the scandal. Police searched their home, Amélie's hat-shop and Matisse's studio for evidence of complicity. When the Humberts were finally detained that December in Madrid, Armand Parayre, then 60 years old, was also arrested and imprisoned for more than a month. Amélie's health suffered and she was forced to close her business, from which the artist's family derived their sole income.
Matisse took the role of family spokesman and defender. To escape the poisonous atmosphere in Paris, the artist and his family spent the winter of 1902-1903 at the home of his parents in Bohain-en Vermandois. The situation was no better when they returned to Paris, and in March 1903, to relieve the burden of stress and financial hardship that had overwhelmed his family, Matisse closed his Paris studio at 19, quai de Saint-Michel and returned to Bohain. Spurling has written: "The spring of 1903 marked his low point. He wrote to Marquet in March, vividly describing the state of misery and emotional numbness to which insomnia had reduced him, and which he feared might end in total disintegration" (op. cit., p. 250).
Later that spring Matisse moved to another house in Bohain away from his parents, who had long disapproved of his choice of a career and now excoriated his inability to properly provide for his family. Here he made his studio, which, as he finally resumed painting, he depicted in one of his best-known works of this period, L'atelier sous les toits (fig. 1). "Dark" it was--Barr described it "as original in conception as it is disconsolate in atmosphere" (op. cit., p. 50). In July 1903 they moved to Lesquielles-Saint Germain, some distance away. On 15 July Matisse wrote to Simon Bussy, a friend and painter, suggesting that the worst was over, and he was getting back on his feet: "My work more or less satisfies me. I am aware of continual real progress, more suppleness of execution than in the earlier studies, and a return to the soft harmonies and close values that will certainly be better received by collectors... The various cares, small and large, more small than large, which life has already given me a good share of, and the responsibility that I've decided courageously to accept, combined with the pittance that our calling brings in, had almost made me decide to quit painting altogether" (quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., p. 82).
In mid-August 1903 the Humberts' trial took place in Paris, resulting in their conviction. It became clear that Amélie's parents were unwitting and blameless instruments in the Humbert scam, but they were devastated at having been misled and betrayed, like countless others who had dealings with the Humberts. Amélie's health, however, was now slowly improving, and in the hope of re-opening her business and working again in his Paris studio, Matisse returned to the capital in the fall of 1903, accompanied by Marguerite, his eldest child.
Nu à la serviette blanche has been ascribed over the years to a date as early as 1901, or as late as 1904. It is unlikely that Matisse would have undertaken such a provocative subject in these strident colors in conservative Bohain, where he and his work were viewed with suspicion and disdain. This picture was probably done in his Paris studio, before or after his prolonged sojourns in Bohain, either in the summer or fall of 1902, or more likely following the artist's return to Paris in the fall of 1903. In either case, this painting is exceptional in his production during this period, for it dispenses altogether with the "soft harmonies" and "close values"--that is, the restrained and traditional palette--seen in almost all of the paintings Matisse did in Bohain, which he continued to employ following his return to Paris, and may be observed in the masterwork of this period, Carmelina, 1904 (fig. 2). In both the latter and the present paintings the figure and ground have been fully integrated, while in the earlier nudes (fig. 3), which Matisse has treated in a very sculptural manner, the elements in the background are only vaguely defined. Flam has observed: "The background played an important but subsidiary role in the composition of the Standing Model paintings of 1900-1902; in Carmelina and Standing Nude with Towel [the present painting] of 1903, the surroundings have become psychologically and formally as important as the figure itself... All elements of the painting are given equal emphasis and all parts of the surface are worked with equal intensity. Matisse's work with volume and plane between 1900 and the beginning of 1904 provided the profound understanding of form and space necessary for the extraordinary synthesis of color and drawing that he would achieve between 1904 and 1906 [fig. 4]" (op. cit., p. 94).
Matisse's understanding of Cézanne, which was more perceptive and further advanced than most of his contemporaries, informs every aspect of Nu à la serviette blanche. The most prized work in Matisse's small collection was Cézanne's Trois baigneuses, circa 1879-1882 (Rewald, no. 360; gift of Matisse to the Musée de la ville de Paris), which he acquired from Vollard in 1899. The interlocking construction of the figure and its surroundings in the present painting is planar throughout, and has been rendered not through drawing, but purely by means of color forms and contrasts. Flam has noted that "Matisse's use of Cézannian devices helped him to create a more dynamic and fluid pictorial ensemble than he had done earlier and to give increased emphasis to the structural and expressive qualities of paint as such" (op. cit., p. 86). Matisse stated: "If Cézanne is right, then I am right. And I knew that Cézanne had made no mistake" (quoted in H. Spurling, op. cit., p. 250).
Also pointing to a date in late 1903 is the fact that Nu à la serviette blanche represents Matisse in his most radical and uncompromising manner. This was during a period when, as Pierre Schneider has pointed out, "for the time being, to make his painting more attractive, he had at all costs to persuade himself that his true temperament and instinct were opposed to experimentation. And this effort was simply unnatural, as everything he painted in the years to come demonstrates: it went against his nature--a nature that, in a few canvases like Nude with White Towel, fought back with a desperate violence, breaking up the planes, setting fire to the background and the outlines--exhausting and bewildering him" (op. cit.. p. 116). Matisse was always at his best when he took risks in his painting, when he followed a declaration that might have served as his personal credo: "The essential thing is to spring forth, to express the bolt of lightning one senses upon contact with a thing. The function of the artist is not to translate an observation but to express the shock of the object on his own nature; the shock, with the original reaction" (quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., p. 85).
The first owner of Nu à la serviette blanche was Jean Puy, a fellow painter and Matisse's close friend. Matisse, Puy and Albert Marquet painted in Henri Manguin's studio during 1899-1900, sharing the expense of hiring models for their initial foray into figure painting, and with André Derain, took lessons from Eugène Carrière in a small academy in Montmartre. This group constituted the core of the Fauve movement in 1905. Puy possessed independent means, and supported the struggling Matisse by buying his paintings when the latter otherwise had little hope of making sales. Puy was especially helpful to Matisse during the latter's most difficult moments in Bohain. Puy acquired another early nude, Nu aux souliers roses, 1900 (exh. cat., op. cit., The Museum of Modern Art, 1992, no. 31), and later the present painting, not long after Matisse painted them.
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, L'atelier sous les toits, early 1903. The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK. BARCODE: 24402224
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Modèle debout, Paris, autumn 1900- spring 1901. Tate Gallery, London. BARCODE: 24402217
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, Carmelina (La pose du nu), winter 1903-1904. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. BARCODE: 24402170
(fig. 4) Henri Matisse, Intérieur à Collioure, summer 1905. Private collection. BARCODE: 24402187