Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
The pose is iconic and instantly recognizable as signature Matisse: the nude model is seated, but turned to one side, she has raised both arms and bent them over her head, with hands joined, but not in any casual manner, because her limbs form an emphatic and purposeful arch. By way of counterpoise, the model's legs also interlock; she has drawn up her left leg, while inserting the foot beneath the knee of her bent right leg, which reaches to the floor. It is an effortful pose, one that only a practiced and dedicated model could have held for any length of time. Among the many figural positions that Matisse devised for his compositions during the course of his career, only the paper cut-out Nu bleu II, 1952, a radical rendering of the nude as an abstract sign, is more famous still, having become emblematic of the artist's work in its final flowering.
Nu au coussin bleu is the pivotal oil painting in a constellation of related works that Matisse executed in various media, all sharing this basic pose, during the mid-1920s. There are also drawings, several lithographs and two sculptures, including the artist's masterwork in three dimensions, Grand nu assis (Duthuit, no. 64; fig. 1). Matisse worked on Grand nu assis for a period of nearly seven years, from 1922 to 1929, slowly modeling it from one stage to the next--it turned into the most challenging work he would undertake during the early period in Nice, and the one that held the most significance for his work to come. Nu au coussin bleu likewise marks a crucial development in the progress of Matisse's painting during this time.
From 1917 onward, Matisse spent increasingly lengthy stays in Nice, first as a visitor who stayed in small hotel rooms, and beginning in 1921, as a resident of the city, having rented an apartment on the third floor of 1, place Charles-Félix. His decision to come to Nice had been a boon to his career. He later recalled in a 1952 interview, "Yes, I had to catch my breath, to relax and forget my worries, far from Paris. The Odalisques were the bounty of a happy nostalgia, a lovely vivid dream, and the almost ecstatic, enchanted days and nights of the Moroccan climate. I felt an irresistible need to express that ecstasy, that divine unconcern, in corresponding colored rhythms, rhythms of sunny and lavish figures and colors" (quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse: A Retrospective, New York, 1988, p. 230). Each spring Matisse sent back to Paris a shipment of his recent odalisques and other interior scenes for exhibition at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, where they sold quickly and well. He was not, however, merely marking time in the sun. Dominique Fourcade has written:
"The paintings of the years 1917-1930 are not the dull reflection of a leave of happiness the artist would have passively accorded himself... These years are in fact an extremely active and a totally surprising moment in Matisse's journey From 1904 to 1916 Matisse elaborated an architectonics of color, whereas from 1917 to 1930 he moves to an architectonics of light... In the end, all of Matisse's research during these first years in Nice arrives at a new unity of the surface: human beings and objects are not treated differently than floors or walls on the painting's surface. Matisse progressively abolishes all pictorial distinction between the apparent subject of his paintings...and the background of these same paintings. He resolves this subject-background distinction in terms of space, and resolves the problem of space in terms of light. Each parcel of the painting's surface is a site of color, whether it represents lemons or a woman's body or part of the room's wall; and each site of color becomes a source of light that, combined with all other sources of light, creates a wholeness of light and space" (Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice 1916-1930, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1986, pp. 47-48, 52 and 55).
Matisse declared: "Look closely at the odalisques: the sun floods them with its triumphant brightness, taking hold of colors and forms. Now the oriental décor of the interiors, the array of hangings and rugs, the rich costumes, the sensuality of heavy, drowsy bodies, the blissful torpor in the eyes lying in wait for pleasure [fig. 2], all this splendid display of a fiesta elevated to the maximum intensity of arabesque and color should not delude us. In this atmosphere of languid relaxation, under the torpor of the sun washing over people and objects, there is a great tension growing, a tension of a specifically pictorial order, a tension that comes from the interplay and inter-relationship of elements" (quoted in ibid., p. 35).
The subtleties of Matisse's new approach, "the architectonics of light," eluded many of his serious viewers, colleagues and the critics, who might fairly be accused of not looking closely enough. Disappointed in the odalisque paintings, which seemed to them like so much warmed-over Impressionism, they suspected that this one-time pioneer may have renounced the cause of modernism. Marcel Sembat, who had written a monograph on Matisse's early work, wrote to Paul Signac in 1922, "He's given in, he's calmed down, the public on his side" (quoted in H. Spurling, Matisse the Master, London, 2005, p. 255). Matisse may have taken such rumblings of criticism to heart, and during the mid-1920s he began, with greater deliberation, to address the all-defining modernist issues of architecture and space. There had been contending notions in his own mind about such matters, which now came to the fore, as Roger Fry has pointed out:
"Matisse's great popularity is based mainly on the work of the years 1920-1925. At this period in the clear light of his atelier in Nice, amid Oriental décor and the spoils of inexhaustible Provencal gardens, he developed richer, more alluring arabesques of gay and sonorous color than ever before. His work had a certain note of elegance. It was exquisitely mundane. A picture of his period seemed as delightful to summarize the refined social life of today as the 18th century painters had done that of their contemporaries He had shown himself the creator and consummate exponent of a modern rococo style. But there was another Matisse, who responded to quite a different kind of appeal from the visible world. A Matisse who felt the appeal of a stark, structural architecture, who loved above all a bare economy, who would, for the austerer delights of such forms, willingly sacrifice the intricate charm of his dancing arabesqueThis other aspect of his genius aims at a more arduous kind of expression, one in which plastic evocations play a larger part, though he never loses sight of surface organization In this mood Matisse seeks above all a plasticity of volumes which is at once more complete and more concentrated, held together by more clearly inevitable sequences" (in J. Flam, ed., op. cit., 1988, pp. 249-250).
By 1924 Matisse was actively pursuing a more sculptural approach to his painting, to meet "a new need for concentration and construction," as Isabelle Monod-Fontaine has described this effort (The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, exh. cat., Arts Council of Great Britain, 1984, p. 35). The sculpture Grand nu assis became the test-bed for his evolving ideas. The initial impetus for this sculpture stemmed from Matisse's interest, amounting to a virtual obsession, in Michelangelo's Night, an allegorical reclining figure in the Medici Chapel, Florence (fig. 3). Matisse closely studied a replica in the Musée des arts décoratifs in Nice. He was impressed by the fact that Michelangelo had set his figure on a downward sloping base, which prevented it from appearing passive and lethargic. Matisse applied this idea to his sculptures of reclining women, and in most dramatic fashion to the "rocking" pose of Grand nu assis, a figure which is ostensibly seated, but is actually reclining--her back unsupported--at an approximate angle of 45 degrees.
The sculpture Grand nu assis became the source and sustaining inspiration for a network of notable paintings, prints and related drawings. It is difficult in most cases to ascertain their precise chronology, and which work may have led to a specific development in another. Grand nu assis underwent a gradual metamorphosis in size and appearance--around 1924 it may have looked as it does in the photograph of Matisse on page 86 of this catalogue, where the volumes of the torso and limbs are noticeably more rounded and naturalistic than they appear in the finished work. A smaller sculpture, Petit nu an canapé, ascribed to 1924 (D., no. 65; fig. 4), which is thought to be a preliminary model for Grand nu assis, faces in the same direction as Michelangelo's Night. The lithographs (D., nos. 442 and 454; the latter, fig. 5), the first of which probably represents an state preliminary to the second, more elaborate image, would have been drawn facing left as well--the images were reversed when printed.
In 1923 Matisse painted the first important canvas in which he used the rightward facing pose of Grand nu assis; this is the painting Odalisque assise aux bras levés, fauteuil rayé vert (fig. 6). The figure of the odalisque in this picture is thinly brushed, with soft contours, typical of Matisse's early Nice manner--the model's figure displays ample soft flesh but little by way of muscular definition.
During the following year, in 1924, Matisse executed--perhaps at around the same time--both the oil painting titled Nu au coussin bleu, offered here, and the first of the two lithographs, likewise titled. Matisse's deliberate drive toward "concentration and construction" is especially noticeable in this painting, in which the figure has a more solid physical presence than in virtually any other picture of an odalisque or nude done in Nice prior to this time. The composition of Nu au coussin bleu is fundamentally similar to that of Odalisque assise au bras levés. Nevertheless, with a more austere conception now directing his efforts, Matisse stripped away both the gauzy harem skirt and the gaudily striped seat cover--the kitschier elements in the picture--leaving in the present composition only the Moroccan wall-hanging and the chair, now unadorned, set on a Chinese rug. In exchange, the artist thoughtfully placed a solid blue cushion on the chair to support the model, whose figure now possesses a palpably solid presence. The contours are firmer, and the paint has been applied more thickly than before; here Matisse has dispensed with the translucent paint film and airy facture that had been typical of his early Nice style. This approach lends substance and weight to the figure, and architectural firmness to the composition overall. Pierre Schneider has observed:
"In all of these works, the influence of sculpture is discernible in the varying degree of muscularity given to the female nude In pictures like the Nude seated on a Blue Cushion [the present work]... it is not so much the pose as the terse, contrast-filled treatment of the subject and the rough, harsh surface of the canvas, that gives the bodies a Michelangelesque appearance. This technique of breaking up volumes into multiple Cézannian planes and constructing with simple, exaggerated forms was derived from Matisse's sculpture; but it had originally been adopted from his pictorial technique; and now, charged with sculptural connotations of weight, density and volume, it was reverting to painting" (op. cit., p. 528).
Schneider titled this chapter of his landmark Matisse monograph "Michelangelo in the Harem." Cézanne and Renoir should also receive credit for their influence on Matisse at this crucial juncture in his work. Matisse met Renoir at the end of 1917, and had numerous contacts with the elderly and ailing master prior to his death in 1919. Renoir's example inspired Matisse to move away from the somber austerity of his wartime Paris pictures, with their cerebral bent, by suggesting a more sensuous approach to painting. Matisse loosened up his brushwork in a breezier, more casual manner. Moreover, following the classicizing and traditionalist tendencies that were very much in the air at that time, Matisse concentrated on leisurely interior subjects, in which the model was the center of attention. Jack Flam has written:
"[Matisse] must have been as impressed by Renoir's unabashed enthusiasm for female beauty as by his lively curiosity and courage... Matisse was not yet known as a painter of sensual nudes; he had not been primarily a painter of nudes at all, and most of those he had done were not notably erotic. His libidinous impulses had been largely sublimated in his painting, embedded in the pictorial language rather than overtly expressed in the subject. Renoir gave him the impetus to make new contact with own sensuality. After twenty years of bourgeois family life, decades of being 'the doctor' and 'professor,' Matisse in his late forties seems to have wanted to learn how to be young again" (Matisse: The Man and his Art 1869-1918, Ithaca, NY, 1986, p. 473).
While memories of Morocco remained a powerful impetus, meeting Renoir did much to set the stage for the emergence of the odalisque in Matisse's work of the 1920s. Renoir's example moreover directed Matisse to the "architectonics of light" in his early Nice paintings. The late nudes of Renoir revealed how it was possible to infuse volume with light, and to render this effect with warm color, without recourse to shadow. By 1924, however, in his desire for greater concentration and solidity in his pictures, Matisse turned to Cézanne as well--as John Elderfield has stated, "It was only to be expected, perhaps, that he should turn to Cézanne as he returned to sculptural form" (The Drawings of Henri Matisse, exh. cat. Arts Council of Great Britain, 1984, p. 86). Matisse declared "If you only knew the moral strength, the encouragement that his remarkable example gave me all my life! In moments of doubt, when I was still searching for myself, frightened sometimes by my discoveries, I thought: 'If Cézanne is right, I am right.' Because I knew that Cézanne made no mistakes. There are, you see, constructional laws in the work of Cézanne which are useful to a painter. He had, among his greatest virtues, the merit of wanting the tones to be forces..." (ibid., p. 87).
Henriette Darricarrère, Matisse's extraordinary model during this period, also had a crucial role in these developments. She worked with Matisse from 1920 to 1927, and was the rock on which the artist built his pictorial edifice. Jack Cowart has written: "During her seven years of modeling, Henriette excelled at role-playing and had a theatrical presence that fueled the evolution of Matisse's art. Earlier, Lorette and Antoinette had initiated the exotic odalisque fantasy, but it was Henriette whose personality seems to have been most receptive. She adopted the subject roles more easily and could express the moods and atmosphere of Matisse's settings without losing her own presence or her own strong appearance. Her distinctive physical features--a sculpturesque body and a finely detailed face with a beautiful profile--are evident in many of the artist's paintings, sculptures, and works on paper" (exh, cat., op. cit., 1986, p. 27). Hilary Spurling has called Henriette "a living sculpture. The finely modeled planes of her torso and limbs caught the light like [Matisse's] clay figures Her body articulated itself like a cat's into compact rounded volumes--breast, belly, haunch, hip, calf, knee--flowing smoothly into and out of one another from the calm regular oval of her face to the balls and heels of her bare feet." (op. cit., p. 270).
Matisse had taken a decisive stride in Nu au coussin bleu towards achieving the synthesis of architecture, color and light he had been seeking. The pose that he derived from Michelangelo and so successfully reconfigured for his own purposes was, as Cowart has called it, "his perfect union of body forms in physical and visual tension" (exh. cat., op. cit, 1986, p. 32). Schneider has observed, "With Michelangelo as his guide... Matisse energized his figures and, in a large number of paintings, succeeded in checking, or at least making up for, the surrender of flesh to two-dimensional theatricality" (op. cit., p. 528).
Drawing on the lessons from he had learned from the sculpture Grand nu assis and the painting Nu au coussin bleu, Matisse now easily brought to the paintings that followed this same heightened presence of the model, fully integrated within an enhanced architectural environment, in which the figure nonetheless retains its independent aspect and hieratic status. During the winter of 1925-1926, Matisse painted Odalisque au tambourin (fig. 7), in which he employed the leftward-looking Michelangelesque pose, now turned towards the front, with Henriette gazing directly at the viewer. Matisse then demonstrated the degree to which he could enrich the ambience of his compositions without fear of overwhelming the figure. He completed, also during the winter of 1925-1926, the universally acknowledged masterwork of his early Nice period, Figure décorative sur fond ornemental (fig. 8), surely the most lavish interior setting he ever devised. Each element in this picture appears to generate its own color and light, all subsumed within a fully integrated grand design, with the odalisque at the center of it all, Buddha-like, as if contemplating in serene delight this marvelous realm of the senses.
(fig. A) Matisse modeling Grand nu assis in his Nice studio, mid-1920s. The Moroccan wall-hanging seen in the painting Nu au coussin bleu is visible in the background behind the artist's head. Matisse Family Archives.
(fig. B) Matisse painting his model Henriette Darricarrère, Nice, 1921. Photograph by Man Ray.
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, Grand nu assis, Nice, 1922-1929. The Baltimore Museum of Art; Cone Collection.
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Le genou levé, 1922. The Barnes Foundation, Merion Station, Pennsylvania.
(fig. 3) Michelangelo Buonarrati, Night, 1520-1534. Medici Chapel, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence.
(fig. 4) Henri Matisse, Petit nu au canapé, Nice 1924. Sold, Christie's New York, 5 May 2005, lot 280.
(fig. 5) Henri Matisse, Nu au coussin bleu à cote d'une chéminee, lithograph, 1925. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
(fig. 6) Henri Matisse, Odalisque assise aux bras levés, fauteuil rayé vert,1923. National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection, Washington, DC.
(fig. 7) Henri Matisse, Odalisque au tambourin, winter 1925-1926. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The William S. Paley Collection.
(fig. 8) Henri Matisse, Figure décorative sur fond ornemental, winter 1925-1926. Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.