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

Vénus à la coquille I

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
Vénus à la coquille I
signed with initials and numbered 'HM 9' (on the right side of the base) and stamped with foundry mark 'C. VALSUANI CIRE PERDUE' (on the back of the base)
bronze with brown patina
Height: 12¼ in. (31 cm.)
Conceived in Nice, 1930 and cast in 1951
Pelle Borjesson, Gothenberg, Sweden (1953).
Fine Arts Associates (Otto M. Gerson), New York.
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner, 12 October 1957.
A.E. Elsen, The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, New York, 1972, pp. 197-199 and 203 (another cast illustrated, p. 198, pls. 258-259).
A.H. Barr, Jr., Matisse: His Art and His Public, London, 1975, pp. 217 and 461 (another cast illustrated, p. 461).
P. Schneider, Matisse, London, 1984, p. 562 (another cast illustrated).
J. Flam, ed., Matisse: A Retrospective, New York, 1988, p. 248 (another cast illustrated).
C. Duthuit and W. de Guébriant, Henri Matisse: Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre sculpté, Paris, 1997, pp. 222-225 and 367, no. 79 (another cast illustrated, pp. 223 and 225).

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Brooke Lampley
Brooke Lampley

Lot Essay

In ancient Greek mythology, Aphrodite (or Venus to the Romans), the goddess of love, emerged from sea foam by the shore. In later Hellenistic sculptures, two of which may be seen today in the Louvre and would have been known to Matisse, Venus was typically depicted as she sits upon a scallop shell, or with the shell at her back, like an aureole. The tradition of Venus Anadyomene ("risen from the sea") was first made famous in a painting by the Greek Apelles, which was known in a badly deteriorated state to the Roman emperor Augustus in the early first century A.D., and was thereafter lost. Botticelli drew upon this tradition to paint his famous Birth of Venus, circa 1486 (The Uffizi Gallery, Florence), and paintings of this subject by the Salon artists Bouguereau and Cabanel were widely admired during the 19th century. Matisse may have known the sculpture of Venus seated against a half-shell that Bourdelle created in 1928. For his own version, however, Matisse gave this theme a more modern, quotidian twist, by posing the nude woman as if seated in a circular metal bathtub, as Degas and Bonnard depicted their domestic bathers at their toilette. Matisse may have derived the extreme positioning of the bather's arms, raised up and then tightly bent back behind her head, from a 1930 Caryatide by Laurens.

In 1929, after more than a decade of working prolifically and well in Nice, Matisse suddenly experienced the unsettling feeling of finding himself blocked in his ability to paint. Henriette Darricarrère, his favorite model, had departed to pursue a career in the burgeoning Nice film industry. "I took up clay in order to rest from painting, in which I had done everything I could for the moment," he later explained to Pierre Courthion. "It was to order my sensations, to seek a method that completely suited me... I found it in sculpture" (quoted in Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, exh. cat., The Baltimore Museum of Art, 2007, p. 227). He created the second version of Nu couché in 1927 (Duthuit, no. 69); Nu couché III followed in 1929 (Duthuit, no. 71). He finally completed that same year Grand nu assis, one of his greatest sculptures (Duthuit, no. 64), which had occupied him on and off since 1922. Henriette III followed soon after (Duthuit, no. 75), and as the culmination of this remarkable run, Matisse produced the massive, monumental Nu de dos, 4e état (Duthuit, no. 76; sold, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2010, lot 65). Unfortunately, Matisse's doctor diagnosed acute neuritis in both the artist's arms--especially his right, in which he held his paintbrushes and modeling tools--and ordered him to rest.

Matisse had rarely taken even a few days off from his work, but now he decided it was time for a full hiatus: beginning in the late winter of 1930 he sailed to New York, then traveled by rail across America, and then again boarded ship to journey fully half-way around the world from France, as had Gauguin nearly four decades earlier, to Tahiti, where he stayed from the end of March until mid-June. While there, with a camera he purchased especially for his journey, he took a photograph of a cloud formation that resembled a nude woman emerging from a billowy source, which reminded him of a poem by the 19th century poet Théophile Gautier, and, of course, the tales of Venus Anadyomene. Among the first things he created when he returned in August to his apartment and studio in Nice was the Tahitian inspired head Le Tiaré (Duthuit, no. 78) and, apparently still haunted by the vision of the clouds above Tahiti, the present Vénus à la coquille.

Matisse returned to the idea of Vénus à la coquille in a version numbered 'II', which he modeled in 1932 (Duthuit, no. 80). While working on the murals for Dr. Barnes' in Merion, Pennsylvania, during 1931-1933 Matisse began to work with paper and scissors to create cut-outs, a technique to which he would increasingly turn in his final decades. One of the best-known, most widely reproduced images among Matisse's late cut-outs is the Nu assis bleu I, 1952, in which, as Albert E. Elsen has pointed out, "there was the reminiscence of the profile of Venus on a Shell II... The sure sense of volume that is so convincing in his paper figures was made convincing by the sculptures" (op. cit., 1972, p. 203).

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