Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
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Henri Matisse (1869-1954)


Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
signed 'Henri Matisse' (upper left)
oil on canvas board
16 x 13 in. (40.7 x 33 cm.)
Painted in 1917
Paul Rosenberg, Paris and New York.
Silvan Kocher & Co., Grenchen, Switzerland.
Private collection, United States.
Acquavella Galleries, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Tokyo, The National Museum of Modern Art, Matisse, March - May 1981, no. 53 (illustrated pp. 78 and 197); this exhibition later travelled to Kyoto, The National Museum of Modern Art, May - July 1981.
New York, Acquavella Galleries, XIX & XX Century Master Paintings, May - June 1982, no. 10 (illustrated p. 23).
Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Henri Matisse, November 1984 - January 1985, no. 30; this exhibition later travelled to Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, January - April 1985.
Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung NRW, Henri Matisse - Figur Farbe Raum, October 2005 - February 2006, no. 82.
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Lot Essay

Matisse had long been fascinated by the exotic, by harems, the Oriental, the Ottoman, by the time he painted Odalisque in 1917. And yet this is a rare and early painting on that theme. Indeed, Odalisque dates from the beginning of the period, which would arguably last the rest of his life, when he began to bring Ottoman splendour and sensuality into his studio in France, having explored it in situ five years earlier during his visits to North Africa. Already, he shows the interest in the female form which had long featured in his work, and also in the implied luxury of the decorated textiles, which Matisse has rendered in part through stripes and through curlicue-like lines, in the case of the seat, that imply arabesques. Odalisque is an invitation into a lyrical empire of the senses, a factor made all the more apparent by the fact that, through her chiffon-like blouse, her breasts are clearly visible, a bold contrast to the morals and dress code of the era in which this picture was painted, far from the harem, in France. It is intriguing to note, though, that while Matisse had already spent some time in the South of France by this stage, the exploration of light that would mark his Nice works is not apparent. Instead, Matisse has used black outlines and the dark background in order to thrust the light area of he woman's flesh and clothes into bold relief.

One of the great revelations that helped to bring about this rediscovered interest in exotic subject matter was his new model, Lorette, who posed for Matisse for roughly a year, from the end of 1916. Hilary Spurling, in her biography Matisse: The Master, explains that Lorette was an Italian model who was recommended to the artist at a period when, unsurprisingly considering the fact that the First World War continued to rampage around him, he was unable to find professionals willing to pose. Within a short period, Lorette had impressed Matisse with her versatility, and it was this that resulted in the make-believe atmosphere that permeated so many of his pictures from this point onwards. In this light, it is to be supposed that the model in Odalisque may well be Lorette herself.

Although Lorette only posed for Matisse for about a year, this was a markedly productive period. His paintings featuring this model had begun with a certain restraint, possibly the influence of the First World War as well as a remnant of the rigidity that had characterised so many of his works during the previous years-- see, for example, his famous portrait of Auguste Pellerin, which also dates from 1917. This has been replaced by the time that Odalisque was painted by a sheer and unfettered sensuality, an enjoyment both of the theme of the motif of a woman clothed in a distinctly erotic manner and in the paint-work itself. Geometry has been replaced with the swirling arabesque-like brushwork that had formerly filled so many of Matisse's most lyrical paintings and which came to flavour so much of his subsequent work. The veil-like blouse has been rendered in such a way as to emphasise its near-invisibility, yet it still captures the light here and there, emphasising the world of languor, indolence and eroticism that, it is implied, exists within the world of Odalisque.

In a sense, this was a recourse to the themes that had intrigued Matisse during his trips to Morocco during the early 1910s. He had been amazed by the difference between his own world and North Africa, and had also seen, coming to life before his eyes, the same world that had so enchanted Delacroix almost a century earlier. It was in recalling this world of the senses, this country of visual and sensual delights and novelties, that Matisse painted Odalisque, bringing the harem into his studio.

At the same time, the Odalisque as a theme was, for Matisse, the Gordian Knot solution to a simple problem that was entirely formal and entirely artistic: 'I do odalisques in order to do nudes. But how does one do the nude without it being artificial? And then, because I know that they exist. I was in Morocco. I have seen them' (Matisse, quoted in J. Elderfield, The Drawings of Henri Matisse, exh.cat., London & New York, 1985, p. 83). It was therefore with a mind to justifying the presence of the nude in his art that Matisse began increasingly to present his models as Odalisques. As a bonus, the subject invokes an entire world of exotic and erotic references and associations. Yet these associations themselves are played with in Matisse's pictures. For Matisse-- who in other paintings had deliberately created images of himself as artist, in his studio, in the process of painting a nude-- was well aware of the artifice that still existed in his pictures, even if the pretence of the harem setting had been introduced. The Odalisque, then, is not only a celebration of the female form, but is also a deeply self-reflexive celebration of art itself.

As well as this perceived justification of the nude as a motif, North Africa had initially had other important implications for Matisse. For in the early 1910s, he had perceived in the light-drenched Morocco a justification and indeed embodiment of the palette of his previous works. This is not present, however, in Odalisque, which has a sense of darkness, of confinement. There are few background details, few distractions. While on the one hand this emphasises the flesh of the woman and the decorations of the light materials of chair and clothing, it also serves to underscore the painting with a note of sobriety only fitting considering the conflict that was raging across Europe at the time. This was a conflict that deeply affected the artist, and one can therefore read Odalisque as a retreat from the grim realities of the War. Stylistically, perhaps the more literal depiction of the model reflects another way in which the gravity of the situation was flavouring his paintings, introducing an early aspect of the Rappel à l'ordre that would sweep along so many artists in the wake of the conflict. It is important to note that, in his letters, Matisse clearly felt guilt at not being at the Front, where so many of his compatriots, and among them so many of his friends, were fighting and, all too often, perishing. He felt guilt too at the frivolity of his life, and was acutely aware of the incongruity of his immersion in a world of the senses and of aesthetics at such a time.

Yet it is vital to note that Matisse was not selfish in this immersion. For scores of visitors, on leave from the Front visited him at Issy and were filled with gratitude for being given a chance to indulge in Matisse's world, in his sensual universe, benefiting from his wonderful hospitality, hospitality that was made all the more bounteous by the efforts of the artist, himself so conscious of the fact that he was not fighting. The spats and rivalries of the Parisian art scene appeared to dissolve, and those recuperating from their exhaustion at the Front had the chance to sit and talk about art with Matisse, as well as with the host of foreigners and army rejects who remained in Paris, making the artist's home a hub and a meeting point, and the contrast between that and battle all the more appreciated.

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