Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
“Look at these odalisques carefully,” instructed Matisse. “Now, the Oriental decors of the interiors, all the rugs and hangings, the lavish costumes, the sensuality of heavy 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” (interview with André Verdet; quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse: A Retrospective, New York, 1988, pp. 239-240).
In the present Odalisque, a delectably orchestrated treatment of this consummate theme, the many visual delights that the artist catalogued to Verdet are all fully, sumptuously in evidence. Henriette Darricarrère, the model who more than any other fueled Matisse’s evolution into the modernist heir par excellence to the Orientalist tradition, here appears at once luxuriantly sensual and calmly authoritative. Clad only in a low-slung, gauze skirt with gold embroidery, plus a coordinating necklace and belt, she inhabits the vaunted role of the odalisque without reserve. Her gaze is steady and forthright; the sculpturesque curves of her bare belly and breasts are on display, catching the light. In the background, two decoratively patterned textiles from the artist’s extensive collection, set into place like scenery in a theater, develop the imagined motif of the Oriental harem, while simultaneously framing the model within an essentially abstract environment—Matisse’s private pictorial world.
Matisse painted Odalisque, mains dans le dos in Nice, on the Côte d’Azur, in early 1923 and sent it to Bernheim-Jeune in Paris at the end of March; the dealers found a buyer for the canvas, Dr. Jacques Soubies, within a month. Since 1917, Matisse had been spending increasingly long periods in Nice each year, returning home to Issy-les-Moulineaux principally for the summer months. 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 later recalled. “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 ibid., p. 230).
For the emergence of the Orientalist odalisque in his work, Matisse also owed no small debt to Renoir. On the last day of 1917, a mutual friend arranged for Matisse to visit the Impressionist master at his home in Cagnes-sur-Mer, a few miles from Nice; they quickly grew close, and Matisse called on Renoir frequently during the two years that remained to the elder painter. Renoir’s example as both man and artist inspired Matisse to move away from the somber austerity and “radical invention” of his wartime Paris production. “Renoir gave him the impetus to make new contact with his own sensuality,” Jack Flam has explained. “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).
At first, Matisse was an itinerant sojourner on the Côte d’Azur, living and working in a succession of small hotel rooms. By 1921, however, he was increasingly certain that Nice, with its all-pervasive luminosity, held the key to the new artistic synthesis that he sought. Upon returning south that fall, he rented a third-floor apartment at 1, place Charles Félix, high on a hill in the old town. The flat had a pleasant living space tucked in the rear and a pair of working rooms in the front, facing south over the Baie des Anges. “Matisse’s status was modifying itself to that of a resident,” Jack Cowart has observed. “The taking of the place Charles Félix apartment was a major step in personal, physical, and creative attachment that would bind the artist to Nice and the Côte d’Azur until his death thirty-three years later” (Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice, 1916-1930, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1986, pp. 29-30).
The new apartment provided Matisse with the space he required to create elaborate settings for his odalisques, giving rise to the Orientalist fantasies that became the primary theme in his painting through the end of the decade. During his first four seasons at Nice, at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage and the Méditerranée, Matisse had painted his models amidst the real-life accoutrements of those rooms, before windows looking onto the palm-lined boardwalk and the sea. Now, he closed off the outside world, putting to use his extensive repertoire of fabrics, wall-hangings, and screens—“my working library”—to invent a wholly alternative reality, heavy with the atmosphere of the seraglio. “Matisse’s apartment opened out on canvas,” Hilary Spurling has written, “expanding or contracting as if by magic, like theatrical or cinematic space. In it he could create color and light effects that correspond less to anything in front of him than to an invisible synthesis in his mind’s eye” (Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, New York, 2005, p. 24).
As the star actress in his paintings, he now turned almost exclusively to Henriette. A dancer, with some knowledge of painting, and—like Matisse and his son Pierre—an accomplished amateur on the violin, Henriette had caught the artist’s eye while she was working as a film extra in the Studios de la Victorine, recently opened on the western edge of Nice. “Henriette’s poise and fluidity, her regular features and oval face, her air of being at ease in her body, added up to a kind of physical perfection,” Spurling has noted (ibid., pp. 241-242). 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 him since 1918. Antoinette became pregnant in late 1920 and last sat for Matisse the following April; Henriette would remain the artist’s principal muse until 1927, when she married and called an end to their extraordinary partnership.
For years, Matisse had been collecting bits and pieces of exotic garb—North African trousers and tops, Spanish shawls and mantillas, a Persian silk robe and turban—from his own travels and from a Lebanese merchant named Ibrahim on the rue Royale in Paris. Antoinette had occasionally donned these costumes, as had Lorette before her and even the artist’s daughter Marguerite. Yet it was Henriette, with her theatrical flair, who adopted the subject roles most naturally, expressing the various moods and atmospheres that Matisse desired while maintaining her own strong presence. “None of his earlier models ever made an Oriental costume look like anything but fancy dress,” Spurling has written. “It was Henriette, so neat, even prim, in her street clothes, who wore the filmy open blouses and billowing low-slung pants without inhibition” (ibid., p. 243).
The present Odalisque is part of a superlative group of canvases created between fall 1922 and spring 1923, Matisse’s second full season working with Henriette, in which the artist reveled in the pictorial possibilities that her collaboration opened up for him. This was a high-classical moment in Matisse’s treatment of the odalisque theme, with one masterpiece following upon another. There are two canvases, both seated compositions, in which Henriette wears the same sheer, gold-trimmed skirt as she does here: Femme mauresque in the Barnes Collection and Odalisque aux bras levés in the National Gallery of Art. In Odalisque reflétée dans la glace (Baltimore Museum of Art), Henriette stands frontally, her arms behind her back as in the present canvas, but now she has traded the translucent skirt for voluminous, harem-style pantaloons. In Odalisque aux magnolias from the Rockefeller Collection, she adopts a languorous reclining pose, her arms raised alluringly over her head and a filmy chemise falling open to reveal her bare breasts.
In all these paintings, Matisse depicted Henriette at close range, her physical proximity and palpably sculpted curves acting as an invitation to the viewer to enter the scene. The patterned textiles in the background define a shallow space, pushing the costumed figure toward the picture plane. In the present canvas, Matisse has juxtaposed two of his favorite scene-sets: a Louis XIV folding screen containing panels of blue toile de Jouy, and a red pierced and appliquéd cotton cloth of North African origin, mounted on a wooden frame. Henriette herself is paired with a tall house plant in a terracotta jug, its rigid, spiky fronds acting as a foil for the roundness of her belly and breasts. The same interior elements appear in Odalisque au paravent, 1923 (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen), but in the present painting they are more closely compressed, heightening the tension between the abstract elements of the composition and the tangible, mimetic general ambience.
In the end, the beguiling female figure is but one more decorative component, albeit the central one, in this richly orchestrated fabrication. The odalisque is an artificial device, a convention that linked Matisse to the Orientalist tradition of Ingres and Delacroix while simultaneously introducing a certain distance between artist and subject. This detachment enabled Matisse to bring the pictorial field alive as an expressive whole, eliminating traditional spatial depth and enriching each part of the canvas equally. “The intensity of the viewer’s confrontation with the model and her provocative sensuality are mediated by the decorative elements,” Flam has concluded, “which both enhance and generalize the erotic charge of the individual woman by insisting on the artificial and synthetic quality of the painted image” (Matisse: His Art and His Textiles, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2004, p. 43).