Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
Odalisque couchée aux magnolias
Henri Matisse was the modernist heir par excellence to the Orientalist tradition in French art that Ingres and Delacroix established during the 19th century. Among the many lovely, sensual nudes that Matisse painted in Nice during the 1920s, Odalisque couchée aux magnolias may well mark the superlative classical moment in the artist’s treatment of this theme. This painting stands out in its consummate synthesis of the essential pictorial qualities that Matisse was exploring at this time and sought to instill in his art. The variety of visual delights, deriving from the attractive model, her costume and ambient décor, the balance and poise of the composition, the subtlety and resonance of the color harmonies all have been most impressively conceived and integrated.
The artist’s evocation of a languorous, dreamy mood is irresistibly absorbing, all the more effective for the manner in which he has imparted to the odalisque and her environment a solid, palpable, and vital presence. Matisse rarely cared to draw attention to the finesse of his brushwork, but he appears to have been especially pleased to showcase the skill of his painterly touch in Odalisque couchée aux magnolias—the effects he educed are a joy in themselves. His overall conception is symphonic, clearly and delectably orchestrated. All parts contribute seamlessly, effortlessly, to a concerted summation, suffused throughout with the wondrous aura of a glowing inner light.
There are other odalisques from this period whose partial or full nudity is more conspicuous and suggestive, but none in which the girl’s pose is as alluring as seen here, yet in the delicate and tasteful manner of which Matisse had become a master. “What might have been explicit eroticism in the image,” Alfred H. Barr, Jr. wrote of Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, “seems diffused into a luxurious, generalized sensuality, intimate yet objective” (op. cit., 1951, p. 211). Even the model’s expression has been carefully and individually characterized, as if also to appeal warmly and directly to the viewer. While indulging in feelings of self-contentment and engaged in reverie, the odalisque casts her gaze toward the artist, whose off-picture role as painter/observer is happily transferred to the viewer, allowing the latter, initially a fascinated voyeur, to enter this scene.
Matisse would have given much of the credit to the young woman who served as his model, his favorite during this period, whom he most often employed—Henriette Darricarrère. She worked with the artist from 1920 to 1927. “During her seven years of modeling, Henriette excelled at role-playing and had a theatrical presence that fueled the evolution of Matisse's art,” Jack Cowart has written. “She adopted the subject roles 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 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” (Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, Volume Two, New York, 2005, p. 270).
Odalisque couchée aux magnolias was painted in Nice during 1923; Matisse sent it to the Salon d’Automne in November. The artist spent the first six months of the year in Nice, before returning to his family residence in Issy-les-Moulineaux, outside Paris, for the summer. The magnolia blossoms that lend their name to this painting were apparently pinned to the screen behind the odalisque, suggesting that Matisse painted the canvas during the late spring or early summer. His dealers Josse and Gaston Bernheim-Jeune purchased the painting on 17 December 1923, the day following the closing of the Salon, reserving it for his personal collection (Matisse’s invoice is reproduced in op. cit., 1995, p. 1164).
From 1917 onward, Matisse spent increasingly lengthy stays in Nice, first as a sojourner in small hotel rooms, then beginning in September 1921 as a resident of the city for most of the year, having rented an apartment on the third floor of 1, place Charles-Félix. His decision to come to Nice was a necessary step for his own peace of mind, and fortunately proved to be a boon to his career as well. “Yes, I had to catch my breath, to relax and forget my worries, far from Paris,” Matisse recalled in a 1952 interview with André Verdet. “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).
On the last day of 1917, a mutual friend arranged for Matisse to visit Pierre-Auguste Renoir at his home in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Although Renoir had been suffering from crippling arthritis for many years, he still painted every day except Sunday. Matisse admired the old painter’s fortitude and unshakable dedication to his art. Matisse brought some of his recent paintings for the master’s critique on a second visit in January 1918. They became good friends; Matisse returned twice again later in the year, and called on Renoir frequently during early 1919 when the old painter lay ailing and near death. Matisse would never forget Renoir’s words: “The pain passes, Matisse, but the beauty remains” (quoted in H. Spurling, op. cit., 2005, p. 217).
Renoir’s example as both man and artist inspired Matisse to move away from the somber austerity and the “radical invention” of his wartime Paris production. “Renoir gave him the impetus to make new contact with his own sensuality,” Jack Flam wrote. “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, New York, 1986, p. 473). Contact with Renoir’s late work set the stage for the emergence of the Orientalist odalisque in Matisse's painting of the 1920s. Renoir’s example also encouraged Matisse to think of color in terms of light, the all-pervasive, limpid luminosity that reflected off the Mediterranean. The late nudes of Renoir revealed to Matisse how it was possible to infuse volume with light, and to express this effect with warm color, without recourse to shadow and other conventional methods of modeling the figure. Matisse loosened up his brushwork to work in a breezier, more improvised manner.
“From 1904 to 1916 Matisse elaborated an architectonics of color, whereas from 1917 to 1930 he moves to an architectonics of light,” Dominique Fourcade observed. “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...He resolves the 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...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” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1986, pp. 52 and 55).
Complementing his evolving conception of light and space, Matisse began to actively pursue in Odalisque couchée aux magnolias a more sculptural approach in his painting, to meet “a new need for concentration and construction,” as Isabelle Monod-Fontaine described his effort (The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, exh. cat., Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1984, p. 35). The sculpture Grand nu assis (Duthuit, no. 64), the most challenging of his projects during the first decade in Nice, became the test-model for his research. Matisse applied himself to the clay model of this sculpture for a period of nearly seven years, from 1922 to 1929, slowly shaping it from one stage to the next. The initial inspiration 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. Matisse assiduously studied a replica in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Nice. He was impressed with the fact that Michelangelo set his figure on a downward sloping base, which prevented it from appearing passive and lethargic.
Matisse applied this idea to Grand nu assis, in which the figure is ostensibly seated, but is actually reclining—her back unsupported—at an angle of approximately 45 degrees. The incline in the placement of the model in Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, and the low chaise longue on which she rests, is far less acute, but effectively tilts her ever so enticingly toward the viewer. The pose itself is the culminating variant of a reclining position which Matisse had employed in various paintings since 1921 (Bernheim-Jeune, nos. 485, 574-578 and 587). The odalisque raises her arms invitingly above her head, the classical “Ariadne” gesture turned from an inward expression of lamentation into an outward gesture of seduction. Her legs, draped in a billowing, harem-style saroual, are drawn up—one knee raised, the other folded beneath—echoing the arch of her arms.
In his deliberate push toward "concentration and construction," Matisse strove to create in Odalisque couchée aux magnolias a figure that projects a more substantial physical presence than in any other picture he had done in Nice prior to this time. The contours are firmer; there is, moreover, the sense of greater depth and architectural solidity within the entirety of the composition. Matisse has here dispensed with the translucent paint film and airy facture that had been typical of his early Renoir-inspired Nice figure paintings, even those done earlier in 1923. Here he applied his paint more thickly, unstinting on finish, lending greater weight to the elements in his composition.
The example Matisse had taken from Renoir was at this stage working in conjunction with further consideration of Cézanne. As John Elderfield has stated, “It was only to be expected, perhaps, that he should turn to Cézanne as he returned to sculptural form” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1984, p. 86). Matisse had always fallen back on Cézanne for insight and instruction. “If you only knew the moral strength, the encouragement that his remarkable example gave me all my life!” Matisse declared. “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” (quoted in, ibid., p. 87).
Indeed, the Cézannian stimulus may be observed in Odalisque couchée aux magnolias most outwardly in the cool, deep blue and green tonality of the interior setting, which perfectly sets off the warm flesh tones of the model and the still-life of fruit in the foreground corner. Renoir’s light had been soft, golden, as if appearing to emanate from within, possessing the ability to open up form. Cézanne’s light, on the other hand, was hard, crystalline and external, essential properties for the purpose of defining form. Matisse was in effect mingling the benefits of both approaches when he painted Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, forging his own treatment of the figure in space, evoking the softness of flesh and fabric within a convincingly solid and supportive spatial environment.
Odalisque aux magnolias stands at an important juncture in the route toward the synthesis of architecture, color and light that Matisse had been seeking. “Although the solution was new—organization with light—the problem was not,” John Elderfield has written. “And while light turned out to be the solution, that soft Nice light needed a location, which returned Matisse to an older solution: abstract compositional construction. And this was drawn into the new synthesis he was creating” (ibid., p. 86). Working from the lessons he gained from his sculpture Grand nu assis, with his eye on Michelangelo, Renoir, and Cézanne, Matisse achieved in Odalisque aux magnolias the degree of pictorial integration and probity that he had been seeking since 1917.
“Look at these odalisques carefully,” Matisse explained to Verdet. “Now, the Oriental decors of the interiors, all the rugs and hangings, the lavish costumes, the sensuality of heavy, slumbering flesh, the blissful torpor of faces awaiting pleasure, the whole ceremony of siesta brought to maximum intensity in the arabesque and the color must not deceive us…In this ambience of languid relaxation…a great tension smolders, a specifically pictorial tension that arises from the interplay and mutual relations of the various elements” (quoted in J. Flam, ed., op. cit., 1988, pp. 239-240).
Matisse’s 1931 retrospective exhibition at the Galeries Georges Petit in Paris concentrated heavily on his production in Nice during the previous decade. Odalisque couchée aux magnolias featured in this exhibition, and likely caught the attention of Picasso, who, as John Richardson has noted, “returned more than once to study his rival’s work” (A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, New York, 2007, p. 441). Picasso was preparing for his own retrospective in the same rooms the following year, for which he wanted to produce a crowning group of paintings that would rival or even surpass what people had seen in the Matisse show. Picasso went on to paint during the spring of 1932 a dazzling sequence of erotically charged masterpieces, each showing his young mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter.
“So strong are the Matissian elements in these paintings by Picasso,” Jack Flam has written, “at times he almost seems to be trying to steal Matisse’s artistic identity” (Matisse and Picasso, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003, p. 155). Perhaps the image of Odalisque couchée aux magnolias flashed through Picasso’s mind as he painted Marie-Thérèse as a reclining odalisque in the now famous Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932, also in blue and lavender tones, in front of a curtain, with a bowl of fruit in the lower left corner, the dreamy girl’s arms raised above her head, a plant appearing to sprout from her side.
Picasso could have afforded Matisse in 1932 no more telling tribute, even if veiled and couched in a competitive spirit, at a time when the two painters were more arch-rivals than friends. Matisse’s odalisques again became an inspiration for Picasso in his Femmes d’Alger series of 1954-1955, which constitutes a dual homage to both Delacroix and Matisse, the latter more lately having become Picasso's good friend and sole acknowledged peer, who passed away in November 1954. When Roland Penrose examined these paintings in February 1955, he mentioned to Picasso how their subject brought to mind Matisse. “You are right,” [Picasso] said with a laugh, “when Matisse died he left me his odalisques as his legacy” (quoted in R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, p. 396).