L'artiste et le modèle nu shows one of the most celebrated subjects painted by Henri Matisse: the artist and his model. This picture was painted during the early years of Matisse's time in Nice and sings with a sense of light, warmth and sensuality. The painter himself is shown within the composition, looking at the nude reclining, her body's forms sinuously tumbling down the chair, within the rich decorative tapestry of the room. A window opens onto the promenade, showing the crown of a palm tree, while textiles within the room create an intriguing rhythmic impression, resulting in a symphonic progression of colourful notations, some of them verticals like the struts of the chair and the stripes of the pyjamas, others more like organic arabesques - most of all, the model herself, who is so clearly the focus of the composition. Looking at L'artiste et le modèle nu, and taking into account the relative scarcity of pictures showing the artist in the act of painting, it is unsurprising to find that it has featured in almost every major exhibition and monograph of Matisse's work from the last few decades, and indeed was shown publically only shortly after its execution. Despite the extensive literature surrounding this picture, it has changed hands only a few times: it was first owned by the celebrated American collector John Quinn; it was then acquired at his posthumous auction by Ruth and Harry Bakwin, in whose hands it remained for almost six decades until it was bought by the present owner.
L'artiste et le modèle nu has been ascribed two different dates in the various books and shows which have featured it. The catalogue entry for the exhibition held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in 1986 is indicative of the two positions: it states that the Archives Henri Matisse were 'inclined to date the painting April 1921' while they themselves, looking at the imagery, prefer a date of 1919, two years earlier (J. Cowart & D. Fourcade, Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice 1916-1930, exh. cat., Washington, DC & New York, 1986, p. 293). However, in the more recent biography of Matisse written by Hilary Spurling, the basis of the Archives' opinion became apparent: she explained that this was a picture showing one of Matisse's most important models during his first years in Nice, Antoinette Arnoud: 'He painted her for the last time in The Painter and His Model, posting off a sketch to his wife and daughter in triumph the day after the picture was finished, 24 April 1921' (H. Spurling, Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, London, 2005, p. 240).
Matisse's sense of triumph after painting L'artiste et le modèle nu would partly have been due to its rich tapestry of colours, and partly due to its theme. The picture shows the artist at work, painting, introducing an intriguing perspective onto the creative act. Matisse had depicted himself in the act of painting a few times by this point, be it in his self-portrait of 1918, now in the Musée Matisse, Le Cateau-Cambrésis, or in works which, like L'artiste et le modèle nu, show him within his studio, as though seen by a third party. These include Le peintre dans son atelier of 1916-17, now in the Musée national d'Art moderne, Paris, and La leçon de peinture, ou La séance de peinture of 1919 in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. In contrast to those images showing the artist in the act of painting, in L'artiste et le modèle nu he has paid more attention to himself: he is no longer a tangential, even spectral presence, but is instead more roundly delineated, with attention paid to his red hair and beard, his glasses and the pyjamas in which he often worked.
Matisse leads our eye into the realm of his studio, the theatre set in which he has conjured his universe of sensuality and colour. In depicting himself, he brings our attention to the entire fictive nature of art and of creation, tapping into a long tradition that stretches back to Jan van Eyck's possible cameo appearance in the Arnolfini Wedding in the National Gallery, London and Diego Velasquez' masterpiece Las Meninas in the Prado, Madrid. In L'artiste et le modèle nu, Matisse is shown with his back to the viewer, as though painted by someone else, insisting upon the artifice of the scene. This was already evident in the 1916-17 picture; however, there, the entire focus was upon the model, a flash of emerald against a purple chair which blaze out among the cooler colours that dominate the composition, and which are repeated on the canvas-within-the-canvas. Even the artist is shown as a mere silhouette, subsumed by the general composition.
In L'artiste et le modèle nu, this balance is reversed: Matisse is shown as a fully fleshed-out character, perhaps reflecting his increased standing by this time. He is an important part of the overall composition, with his colourful striped outfit; the eye is drawn to him and our attention is therefore focussed on the entire transformative process that is at work in the studio. This is a colourful, celebratory meditation on painting. Intriguingly, considering this theme, Louis Aragon wrote of this picture that it may have inspired Pablo Picasso's later variations upon the theme of the bearded artist with his model (see L. Aragon, Henri Matisse: A Novel, vol. 2, trans. J. Stewart, London, 1971, p. 109).
The stylistic differences between L'artiste et le modèle nu and Le peintre dans son atelier indicate in part the reason Matisse sought a new impetus in the South of France from 1917 onwards. During the past half decade, Matisse's work had gained an increasing sense of structural rigidity, in part owing to the influence of Paul Cézanne; he was creating a colourist riposte to the Cubism championed during the same period by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, yet those colours which had driven so much of his earlier work were being leached out, perhaps in part in reaction to the First World War. Matisse, a sensual artist attracted by light and colour, began to crave a way out from the near-geometrical strictures in evidence in Le peintre dans son atelier, and found this upon his first visit to Nice in 1917. There, he would go to visit an artist of Cézanne's generation, but who was in some senses his polar opposite: Pierre-Auguste Renoir. During this period, the old Impressionist, who had been fascinated by Matisse's modern style of painting, became a sort of mentor for him. Matisse now introduced a new eroticism into his paintings, influenced perhaps by the abundant flesh so celebrated in Renoir's work. Light, colour and sensuous form thus made a resurgent entry into Matisse's works. He himself would explain the evolution, and the introduction of the theme of the 'odalisque' which L'artiste et le modèle nu so clearly anticipates, while looking back on this period from the vantage point of 1951:
'After beginning with some exuberance, my painting had evolved toward decantation and simplicity. A synthesis both pictorial and moral, governed always by laws of harmony, held strict dominions over my work. A will to rhythmic abstraction was battling with my natural, innate desire for rich, warm, generous colours and forms, in which the arabesque strove to establish its supremacy. From this duality issued works that, overcoming my inner constraints, were realised in the union of contrasts' (Matisse, quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1995, pp. 300-01).
It is this quest for the arabesque which has clearly driven L'artiste et le modèle nu, in which the rigid vertical and diagonal lines that make up so much of the composition are used to contrast with the main focus: the curvaceous naked figure draped on the chair at the centre of the canvas.
Before heading to Nice, Matisse had been using an Italian model, often referred to as 'Laurette' (Loretta) in a number of his pictures. This was his first instance of using the same subject as a spur for entire sequences of works, a practice which he would continue for the rest of his career. L'artiste et le modèle nu is considered to be the final work showing the next holder of this gauntlet, Antoinette Arnoud. According to Spurling's biography of Matisse, the nineteen year-old Arnoud was in part sent in Matisse's direction by the head of the local art school; there is even a chance that she may have been suggested by Renoir as a model more suited to him (see Spurling, op. cit., 2005, p. 223). A sultry yet sullen model, Arnoud appeared in Matisse's works in 1919 and was a regular model for him over the next few years, until 1921 and L'artiste et le modèle nu; at that point, her mantle was in turn being taken up by Henriette Darricarrère; later, the blond Russian, Lydia Delectorskaya, would fulfil the role of muse. Arnoud's own brief period as muse for Matisse saw the timbre of his paintings change as their eroticism grew. Indeed, the heady sensuality so in evidence in L'artiste et le modèle nu was in stark contrast to the earlier picture showing him painting a model in Paris in 1916-17. Now, he was filling the pictures with indications of a life that appeared more bohemian, with young women flitting through his hotel room, sometimes in a state of undress. The hotel room itself became an arena of transformation as he conjured this atmosphere of elegant near-debauchery - a state that was very far from the more prosaic reality of the artist striving at his work.
The string of pictures that Matisse created in his hotel rooms during this period, and later in his own apartment on place Charles-Félix which he acquired later in 1921, giving him a more permanent foot-hold in Nice, testify to the charms of the South, of feminine beauty and of the sheer joy of creating colourful patterns that convey a sense of their magic. This resulted in a variety of works, often featuring variations on ambience, such as the cooler Femme au divan from the Kunstmuseum, Basel, Le boudoir now in the Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris, or Le divan in the same collection, which features the same red check appearance on the floor with the swirling décor of the patterned wallpaper shown in a different colour. The latter is also in evidence in the more sensuous painting, La jeune fille et le vase de fleurs, ou Le nu rose, also in the Orangerie, where a naked woman is shown as though emerging from a bath, her hair bundled in a towel while another dangles carelessly from her hand as she crosses the room with assurance. Pictures such as that and L'artiste et le modèle nu, with their erotic overtones, would pave the way for the 'odalisques' that would be ushered in by Henriette, such as Odalisque à la culotte grise or indeed Odalisque à la culotte rouge in the Pompidou.
The room that Matisse immortalised in L'artiste et le modèle nu was in the Hôtel de la Méditerranée et de la Côte d'Azur on the waterfront, where he had stayed several times. Indeed, L'artiste et le modèle nu was painted during Matisse's final painting campaign in the hotel: later in 1921, he would acquire an apartment, gaining a more permanent footing in Nice. It was the room Matisse occupied during the season from the end of 1920 until the period of L'artiste et le modèle nu that the poet and playwright Charles Vildrac would have visited, as he would later recall: 'I went to see Matisse once in that room in Nice which looks out on the promenade and on the sea and which he has left since. I knew most of the paintings that he painted there these last years. Therefore I found the high window and its curtains, the red rug and its decoration, the "toad" armchair in which Matisse often placed the nude model... I recognised the decorated porcelain vase and the lacquered dressing table with the oval mirror. Without a doubt, I found myself in the room "of the Matisse paintings"...
'First of all, this room wasn't as big as I had thought: I had gotten the impression from certain canvases that one could walk in it freely, with great strides, dance in it with ease; actually, it was all lengthwise, quite cluttered and the window took up the better part of its width. Besides, I had to realise that the painter had given it a fresh and entirely submissive soul, like flowers are to the variations of the sky, a soul which in reality it did not have: it was certainly a pleasant hotel room, but with the soul of a hotel room…
'Didn't Matisse paint this window, these curtains saturated with light, this red rug, this furniture, the same day as when some magician had created this room with the stroke of a wand, while each object, occupying the only place that suited its shape, its volume, its colour, had just ingeniously and for the first time, offered up its grace to the light?
'You understand, of course, that the magician had been Matisse himself, and that I was in a position to admire a little more still the creative power of the painter by looking at his motifs with my eyes of a nonpainter' (C. Vildrac, quoted in Cowart & Fourcade, op. cit., 1986, p. 26).
Vildrac's memoir of the room gives a sense of Matisse's ability to conjure the sensuality on the canvas - but not in reality. That is a part of the entire creative process, a part of what was happening within the painting. It is for this reason that L'artiste et le modèle nu is such a key to Matisse's working methods and theories, a manifesto in oils showing the artist in the act of bringing this fictitious world to life, lending it its new, colourist incarnation. Even Antoinette, whose depictions often revealed her boredom, becomes a sensual cipher dominating the composition. Her curves - possibly the result of her pregnancy - add to the decorative impact of the composition, creating extra curlicues that allow the eye to meander pleasurably (see Spurling, op. cit., 2005, p. 240).