‘This was a completely new way of painting,’ says Henri Matisse’s biographer, Hilary Spurling. The author is referring to the French master’s Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, from 1923, which is offered from The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller on 8 May in New York.
Depicting his favourite model, Henriette Darricarrère, in sensual repose, it was executed in his studio in Nice, which consisted of ‘two rooms furnished more or less entirely from junk shops,’ Spurling says. ‘Matisse would pick up screens and fabrics [for use] as props, costumes and backdrops in his paintings. All these elements become part of the texture of a picture — people just hadn’t painted that way before.’
More often than not, the elements were radiantly coloured, and in the case of Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, they included the floral screen behind Darricarrère and the striped, green cover of the chaise longue on which she reclines.
‘This is a very deceptive painting,’ insists Spurling. ‘It’s incredibly beautiful from whatever point of view you look at it. But Nice was a very washed-up place at that point. This was a terrible period for France, which had been smashed by the First World War… He’s painting a very insecure world.’
Matisse, who hailed from the north of the country, had moved south from Paris at the end of the war. Darricarrère was 19 or 20 when she and the artist met, and was working in Nice as a ballerina. ‘He particularly liked her as a model,’ says Spurling. ‘Henriette’s training as a dancer meant she was very athletic, and Matisse never tired of the volumes and planes, the flexibility and fluidity, of her incredible body.’
‘Under his tutelage, Henriette Darricarrère became a painter too. Matisse adopted her pretty much as an honorary daughter’ — Hilary Spurling
Matisse frequently depicted her with her arms raised or folded behind her head. ‘These are remarkable poses to hold for 10 hours at a time — and then 10 hours the next day too,’ comments the writer. ‘But she was extraordinarily patient and had terrific stamina.’
Darricarrère and Matisse developed a close rapport, and she became the main model for his famous set of paintings known as the ‘Odalisques’, from the 1920s and 1930s. Spurling explains that this series of paintings of exotic-looking females set against a richly decorative background ‘arose from pure chance’. Matisse’s daughter had come to visit him and all three went to a fancy-dress ball; the artist went dressed as an Arab sultan, and the two girls were dressed as members of his harem.
The next day they posed for him in their fancy-dress costumes, says Spurling, ‘and Henriette was so receptive’ that [Matisse] would not have gone on to paint the ‘Odalisques’ had she responded differently.
‘It was very much an equal partnership between the two of them,’ the author explains. ‘Henriette was a remarkable girl. She also played the violin; she and Matisse performed duets. Under his tutelage, she became a painter too. Matisse [and his wife, Amélie] adopted her pretty much as an honorary daughter.’
With their chromatic verve, the ‘Odalisque’ paintings are considered not just landmark works in their own right, but also anticipations of the celebrated ‘Cut-Out’ compositions (in paper) that the artist made at the end of his career. ‘He was always,’ Spurling concludes, ‘between 20 and 50 years ahead of his contemporaries.’