Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
We would like to thank Julia May Boddewyn for her assistance researching the provenance of this work.
‘Lorette released in Matisse an observant gaiety and speedy, casual attack suppressed in years of strenuous sacrificial effort. He responded to her expert lead as spontaneously as a dancer taking to the floor’ -Hilary Spurling
In November 1916, with the Great War in its third harrowing year and Matisse’s art coming as close to pure abstraction as it ever would, a new model entered the artist’s life, a young woman who would utterly transform his painting. Her name was Lorette, and during the next six or seven months, he painted nobody and nothing else. ‘No other model ever absorbed him so exclusively and at this degree of intensity either before or afterward,’ Hilary Spurling has noted (H. Spurling, in R. Rabinow & D. Aagesen, eds., Matisse: In Search of True Painting, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2012, p. 101). Although Matisse’s inaugural painting of Lorette, the Guggenheim Italienne, is among the most austere and reductive of his wartime works, the stream of portraits that followed—some fifty in all—usher in a wholly new sensuality and freedom, establishing the direction that his art would take for well over a decade.
Very little is known about this raven-haired woman whose hedonistic, Mediterranean persona so liberated and revitalised Matisse’s art. A notation in his journal suggests that the painter Georgette Sembat introduced the two, a welcome favour during wartime when models were scarce. She may have been the sister of Rosa Arpino, who had posed for Matisse in 1906. Whatever her biography, she evidently made quite the impression on the entire Matisse clan. The artist’s elder son Jean is said to have been infatuated with her and dreamed of marriage; the younger Pierre recalled that during breaks from posing she liked to go to the open window for air, stark naked, apparently oblivious to gawking neighbours. Matisse, for his part, had never before had a model available to him day after day, and his exhaustive exploration of her tangible physical likeness—which now assumes priority over abstract notions of pictorial expressiveness—takes on the obsessive intimacy of a love affair played out on canvas.
The speed and alacrity with which Matisse changed aesthetic course following Lorette’s fortuitous arrival in his studio suggest that, by the end of 1916, he craved release from the constraints of abstraction. ‘I was coming out of long and wearying years of searching,’ he later recalled, ‘during which I had given the best of myself, after many inner conflicts, in order to bring those researches to the point of achieving what I hoped would be an unprecedented creation. After having started out with some exuberance, my painting had evolved toward decantation and simplicity. 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’ (Matisse, quoted in S. D’Alessandro & J. Elderfield, Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 2010, p. 310).
A consummate actress, Lorette possessed a gift for transformation that proved to be just the stimulus Matisse needed at this pivotal juncture. He painted her in a variety of guises—as a Spanish señorita, a Parisian coquette, a turbaned odalisque—and, still more striking, in a wide range of moods; from one canvas to the next, she shifts from hieratic gravity to flirtatious playfulness, from ethereal purity to Dionysian abandon. Sometimes she reclines or sleeps in an armchair; most often, though, she is seen full-face and at close range, enabling Matisse to devise endlessly inventive variations on her strong features, heart-shaped visage, and wavy black tresses. ‘Lorette released in Matisse an observant gaiety and speedy, casual attack suppressed in years of strenuous sacrificial effort,’ Spurling has written. ‘He responded to her expert lead as spontaneously as a dancer taking to the floor’ (H. Spurling, Matisse the Master, New York, 2005, pp. 200-201).
In the present painting, Lorette fixes the viewer with a sombre, penetrating gaze that bespeaks the force of her personality; her kohl-rimmed eyes are deeply set beneath dramatically arched brows, heightening the expressive effect. Strong light enters the scene from the right and emphasises the chiseled planes of her face; she is clad in a white chemise with a plunging collar that shows off the elegant line of her neck and repeats the emphatic angle of her jaw. This is the same top that Lorette donned for Matisse’s very first painting of her in November 1916, and it re-appears in at least eight subsequent portraits. Here, she inclines her head to the right and rotates her shoulders at a slight opposing angle, creating a graceful S-curve that harmonises with the ruffled neckline of the blouse. Her jet-black hair, styled in sleek waves, resolves into a sinuous arabesque that stands out against the gold ground, completing the decorative ensemble.
Lorette stopped posing for Matisse in the summer of 1917, and the artist turned briefly to landscape and still-life. He felt her absence deeply, though, and set out to ensure that he was never again without a model at the ready; he now needed a human presence, he explained, to endure the tension of each fresh confrontation on canvas. In December 1917, he relocated from Paris to Nice, where he found a promising successor to Lorette in 19-year-old Antoinette Arnoud; in 1920, he met Henriette Darricarrère, who would further enrich and sustain his odalisque fantasy to the end of the decade. ‘I depend entirely on my model, whom I observe at liberty,’ he declared in 1939, more than two decades after Lorette had transformed his working practice. ‘After a certain moment it is a kind of revelation, it is no longer me. I don’t know what I am doing, I [have] identified with my model’ (Matisse, quoted in Matisse and the Model, exh. cat., Eykyn Maclean, New York, 2011, pp. 45 & 53).