Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Two young women at ease, the airy, luminous interior, the large French window opening on blue skies and the sea in the distance—these visual amenities are classic hallmarks of Henri Matisse’s art during the early 1920s, only a few years into his life-long love affair with the city of Nice on the C?te d’Azur. Another cold and dismal winter in wartime Paris, Matisse decided in October 1917, was more than he could bear, and so he traveled south to the sunny Midi, stopping first at Marseille and then nearby L'Estaque, where he and Albert Marquet had painted two years before. In mid-December he moved on to Nice, a city he had not previously visited. "I left L'Estaque because of the wind, and I had caught bronchitis there,” the artist later recounted. “I came to Nice to cure it, and it rained for a month. Finally I decided to leave. The next day the mistral chased the clouds away and it was beautiful. I decided not to leave Nice, and have stayed there practically the rest of my life" (quoted in J. Cowart, Matisse: The Early Years in Nice, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 19).
Matisse thereafter returned to Nice each winter, spending extended periods of time during each visit, before becoming a virtual permanent resident during his fifth sojourn in 1921-1922. In contrast to the often gray and variable light of the north, the artist delighted in the Mediterranean light during the winter; although it was less dazzling than in the summer, it created a subtler spectrum of colors. “Most people come here for the light and the picturesque quality,” the artist later explained. “As for me, I come from the north. What made me stay are the great colored reflections of January, the luminosity of daylight.” To the painter Charles Camoin, Matisse wrote in May 1918, "High noon is superb but frightening... A little while ago I took a nap underneath an olive tree and what I saw was of a color and softness of relationships that was truly moving. It seems as though it is a paradise that one does not have the right to analyze, however, one is a painter, God damn it. Ah! Nice is a beautiful place! What a gentle and soft light in spite of its brightness!" (ibid., pp. 19 and 23).
During his first stay in Nice, which lasted until his return home to Issy-les-Moulineaux, outside Paris, at the beginning of summer 1918, Matisse took a room in the H?tel Beau-Rivage on the seaside quai de Midi (soon afterward, upon America’s entry into the First World War, renamed the quai des États-Unis). He rented a small apartment in the building next door for use as his studio. When he returned to Nice for the 1918-1919 season, the artist resided at the H?tel Méditerranée et de la C?te d’Azur, at 25, promenade des Anglais, with offered altogether more felicitous accommodations than the Beau-Rivage (which had been requisitioned for wartime military use), including—on the first and second floors—elegantly balustered balconies overlooking the sea. Matisse returned to the H?tel Méditerranée for the next two seasons: 1919-1920, during which his room lacked a balcony, and 1920-1921, his fourth sojourn in Nice, in which the tall French window in his room opened to the terrace. “An old and good hotel, of course!” Matisse reminisced with Francis Carco in 1953. “And what pretty Italian-style ceilings! What tiling! I stayed there four years for the pleasure of painting nudes and figures in an old sirocco sitting room. Do you remember the light we had through the shutters? It came from below as if from theater footlights. Everything was fake, absurd, amazing, delicious” (quoted in ibid., p. 24).
The convenience of balcony access became a key feature in certain of the window interior compositions that the artist painted during the fall, winter, and early spring of 1920-1921. This accoutrement indeed appears in the present Les régates de Nice, which Matisse likely completed during the early spring of 1921. His dealer Galerie Bernheim-June acquired this painting soon afterwards; the gallery photograph (no. 3755) is dated May 1921. Bernheim-Jeune inventoried the painting as Femme sur un balcon—in the singular—perhaps referring to the young woman standing at the threshold of the door, having overlooked the second figure seated side-saddle in the chair on the balcony. Or perhaps the gallery viewed the picture the other way around, knowing that the seated woman was in fact Marguerite Matisse, the artist’s 26-year-old daughter. She had been staying with her father at the hotel since late 1920, convalescing from difficult surgery to reconstruct her larynx, which had been damaged in an emergency tracheotomy at the age of six. She is in the present painting wearing the black and white Scotch-plaid coat in which she posed for Matisse twice in 1918 (one painting is Bernheim-Jeune, no. 225).
The standing figure is Henriette Darricarrère, the best known of Matisse’s models and his personal favorite during the first decade in Nice. A dancer, with some knowledge of painting, and—like the artist and his son Pierre—an accomplished amateur on the violin, Henriette caught Matisse’s eye while she was working as a film extra in the Studios de la Victorine, recently opened on the western edge of Nice. She began to pose for Matisse during the fall of 1920, and soon proved more reliable than lovely but moody Antoinette Arnoud, who had been modeling for Matisse since the fall of 1918; the artist occasionally needed to employ the latter’s sister as a stand-in. Antoinette became pregnant in late 1920; she last posed at the Hôtel Méditerranée as the seated nude in L’artiste et le modèle nu, a rare instance of Matisse including himself—wielding his brush—in the composition, which he completed in April 1921, around the time he painted the present Les régates de Nice.
Henriette and Marguerite together feature in three paintings of February 1921, each titled Fête de Fleurs, as the two young women on the balcony enjoying the parade of flower-covered floats and marching bands known as La Bataille de Fleurs during Carnaval. At the first signs of spring, Matisse used his automobile to take the two women on excursions into the local countryside and to parks near Nice. Setting up his easel outdoors, Matisse depicted them as if he were playing the part of an Impressionist painter some forty years earlier, savoring the limpid light that glinted off the silvery green leaves of the olive trees.
During the fall of 1921, as the artist’s fifth season in Nice got underway, Henriette became the artist’s chief and, at most times, his sole model. Matisse had then decided to finally dispense with hotel accommodations, and rented an apartment at 1, place Charles-Félix. These new rooms provided the space he required to create the elaborate settings for his odalisques, with Henriette as his star actress, in the orientalist fantasies that became the primary theme in his painting and sculpture through the end of the decade.
The window interiors on which Matisse concentrated his efforts during the first four seasons he worked in Nice, and as importantly the figures that occupy these rooms, are prologue to the odalisques. The qualities of the light in the Midi, the artist realized, created an altogether different sense of space and color than that he had been accustomed to in Paris. He moreover recognized that in this light, the way in which he organized his new pictures, handling the many relationships between the various elements within them, required a new synthesis of conception and means. The window, as the conveyor of light, became the crucial motif in the exploratory process Matisse that commenced in early 1918, with Ma chambre au Beau-Rivage.
The view through a window is the perfect analogy for the art of painting, the visualization and creation of a pictorial composition within the four edges of a frame. “Windows have always interested me,” Matisse explained to Tériade in 1951, “because they are a passageway between the exterior and the interior” (J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 205). The window may also represent the threshold of transformation, through which the near present opens unto the distant future. With shutters thrown open, the dazzling light of a new day streams through Matisse’s iconic Fauve window of 1905, setting the room ablaze with color, just as he stunned the art world with the radical idea of pure color become form. The Porte-fenêtre à Collioure of 1914 reveals a different vision, a portentously empty and unknowable distant space, in a world at war.
“A window appears in nearly one hundred of Henri Matisse’s paintings," Shirley Neilsen Blum has observed. “Windows are fixed to Matisse’s place in the modern canon. Throughout his long career, in each new phase of his art and with every change of residence, Matisse reinvented this theme... Repeatedly Matisse drew upon an architectural order (so clearly stated in the window) to contain his radical experiments with color, with light, and with hybrid organic forms” (Henri Matisse: Rooms with a View, New York, 2010, pp. 11 and 14). Within the composed interior that constitutes the full, original space within the edges of the canvas, a window delineates the presence of a second frame, through which that artist reveals an exterior space—a painting within the painting. The function of Matisse’s window is to join these two worlds, the inner sphere of the human presence and activity, with the outer realm of surrounding nature. Matisse explained in a 1942 broadcast interview: “The space is one unity from the horizon right to the interior of my work room, and the boat that is going past exists in the same space as the familiar objects around me; the wall with the window does not create two different worlds” (J. Flam, ed., op. cit., 1995, p. 146). The unifying agent, Matisse understood, is all-enveloping light.
Catherine Bock-Weiss discerned the strong influence of the silent, black-and-white cinema on Matisse’s painting during the 1920s, derived from the artist’s own experiences of movie-going, as well as his observation of the directorial and production techniques employed in the new Studios de la Victorine. “In his post-1918 work, Matisse breaks free from a compressed and tactile space that is evident in his earliest works as well as his cubist-inspired compositions. The spatial illusions in the Nice paintings seem to be the result of a mobile viewpoint” (Henri Matisse: Modernist Against the Grain, University Park, Penn., 2009, pp. 110-111).
Matisse viewed the interior in Les régates de Nice as if from a ladder-like height, resulting in a plunging perspective that flattens the deep space, which extends from the interior foreground to the far marine horizon. Throughout this vast distance, Matisse employs cinematic deep focus: every pictorial element in Les régates de Nice, regardless of placement, is accorded the same degree of clarity. Matisse appreciated the French cinematic practice of using natural light to create fullness of form, unlike the preference in German film-making for single-source lighting, which generates strong, black and white, chiaroscuro contrasts. Devoid of color, early black-and-white cinema emphasized the role of light as a means of pictorial construction and expression. “Cinema was there to provide Matisse with a liberating model for ‘looking’ and ‘selecting,’ for such a humble and transformational dialogue with the natural world. It also provided a hallucinatory model for the release of hitherto unexpressed dreams and desires” (ibid., p. 118).
“From 1904 to 1916 Matisse elaborated an architectonics of color, whereas from 1917 to 1930 he moves to an architectonics of light,” Dominique Fourcade stated. “His new chromatic approach will consist of scattering a myriad of diverse colors on the canvas (it should be noted that only a colorist of the caliber of Matisse could produce these colors, let alone put them together on the same surface). In this first period in Nice, Matisse is still the greatest colorist of his time. The multitude of colored elements is held together and forms a coherent fabric through the grace of a unity of light. A kind of supreme plane of light pervades and unifies the otherwise implausible diversity of colors (diametrically opposed to the spectrum of realism or naturalism). This unique luminous plane, an architecture without pillars, is so strong that it achieves the annihilation of the third dimension of space—the depth of perspective that Matisse will nevertheless reinstate.
“This allover light is extremely difficult to achieve... He must paint this fragmented color and totalizing light in one and the same gesture, searching for the point of balance in a dramatic all or nothing effort... This pursuit of light is, at least until 1925, his most serious pursuit.
“In the end, all of Matisse’s research during these first years in Nice arrives at a new unity of 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...and each site of color becomes a source of light that, combined with all the other sources of light on the canvas, create a wholeness of light and space” (exh, cat., op, cit., 1987, pp. 52 and 55).
The poet and playwright Charles Vildrac visited Matisse around the time the artist painted Les régates de nices. “I knew most of the paintings that he had painted there these last years,” he recounted. “Without a doubt, I found myself in the room ‘of the Matisse paintings’... This room wasn’t as big as I thought... Besides, I had to realize that the painter had given it a fresh and entirely submissive soul...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...offered up its grace to the light? You understand, the magician had been Matisse himself” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1986, p. 26).