The first time Henri Matisse saw his future model Henriette Darricarrère in the Studios de la Victorine in Nice, she was posing as a ballerina for a photographer. She modelled for him for seven years beginning in 1920, appearing in hundreds of his works. Nice, where Matisse spent an ever increasing amount of his time from 1916 onwards, significantly influenced his work. The warm light and languid atmosphere of the French Riviera helped define both the style and subject of Matisse's art. Henriette perfectly fit the requirements of his artistic vision during that period--she was sensuous and lithe, the perfect model for the pictorial celebrations of beauty and excess he was then producing.
Nice and Henriette conspired to nurture Matisse's artistic evolution. The heavy outlines formerly characteristic of Matisse's work dissolved in the Mediterranean sun, lending a levity to his pictures. La danseuse is imbued with colour, despite its simple content. Often in works from his early Nice period, the richness of the settings refuses to allow the central figure or figures to be considered the sole subject---the atmosphere and surroundings vie for the viewer's attention in Matisse's orgiastic representations of exotic luxury. However, it was in 1925, the year La danseuse was executed, that Matisse's vision changed tack--instead of presenting a decorative ensemble where his model featured as a mere ornament, he increasingly focused on her. Matisse allows the dancer to fill most of the frame. As with his odalisques, La danseuse celebrates flesh and the female, but now interest has almost turned to idolatry. However much the background bustles with color and energy, the ballerina is brought into bold relief by the contrast between the ornate setting and the sumptuous modelling of her flesh. Matisse has allowed Henriette to dominate the picture, imbuing her with an engaging monumentality.
This change in Matisse's work has been largely accounted for by his recent trip to Italy, where he was greatly impressed by the sheer presence of Michelangelo's sculpture, as well as by Henriette's own presence and character. Her ability to become ballerina, odalisque or musician at will, and to appear in each guise with conviction, impressed Matisse and had an impact, over the years, on her portrayal in his pictures.
Regardless of the increasing importance and centrality of the figure in Matisse's Nice works, his interest in the exotic furnishings and settings remains consistent. Despite showing a ballerina, La danseuse achieves a similar effect to the odalisques. Matisse said of his work from this period, "I needed to have a respite, to let myself go and relax, to forget all worries far from Paris. The Odalisques were the abundant fruits at once of a light-hearted nostalgia, of a beautiful, living dream, and of something that I experienced almost ecstatically every day and night, under the enchantment of that climate" (quoted in P. Schneider, Matisse, Paris, 1984, p. 496).
While his earlier works had confronted the artificial medium of painting in a frontal assault, here subterfuge and subtlety became his weapons. The costume and surroundings in La danseuse are deliberately exposed as props. Matisse explores the artificiality of his medium through the artificiality of the pose and situation represented.
Theatricality was a character rather than a mere characteristic in Matisse's art during this period, yet the exploration of artifice reveals itself through the honesty of Matisse's vision: he only highlights the artifice by genuinely capturing the moment at which artist and model work in harmony. As he himself stated, his work was "a meditation on nature, on the expression of a dream which is always inspired by reality" (quoted in N. Watkins, Matisse, Oxford, 1984, p. 162).
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse drawing Henriette Darricarrière, mid 1920s. (0718 7971)
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Femme assise nu, 1926.
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris.