‘Drawing is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence’
‘When you understand an object, you are able to encompass it with a contour that defines it entirely’
'My line drawing is the purest and most direct translation of my emotion.’
In 1935, inspired by the presence of his principal model, Lydia Delectorskaya, Henri Matisse began a great series of pen and ink drawings that depict the female nude reclining amid sumptuously patterned textiles in his studio. Described by John Elderfield as ‘among the greatest achievements of his draughtsmanship,’ these nudes saw the artist break new ground in his graphic oeuvre, as he captured, with an instinctive and unerring line, the sensuous forms of his models in perfect accord with their surroundings. An image of beguiling sensuality and heady exoticism, Nu couché belongs to this celebrated group. ‘Some of the individual sheets are breathtaking in their assurance and audacity,’ Elderfield continued, ‘and almost without exception, they realise what the comparable, late 1920s ink drawings did not: decorative assimilation of the figure into the decorated unity of the sheet. The difficult lessons in composition Matisse had taught himself in the earlier 1930s made possible the utter fluency and sense of almost instantaneously achieved order that emerges from these remarkable works’ (The Drawings of Henri Matisse, exh. cat., London and New York, 1984, p. 113).
Pictured reclining upon a richly patterned textile-covered divan, her body twisted as she gazes dreamily into the distance, the nude in the present work not only recalls the sensuous odalisques of the 1920s, but is also an extension of the explorations that Matisse had been making into this subject earlier in 1935. He had finished his Grand nu couché (The Baltimore Museum of Art) at the end of October, a painting in which the artist succeeded in creating his composition from flattened, simplified planes of colour upon the canvas.
This purity of form and economy of means found its apogee in the subsequent line drawings, as Matisse expunged all other formal attributes, leaving behind the traditions of tonal modelling to create his compositions with solely the fine, singular line of the pen upon the paper. In the present work, the artist has rendered his model with a single undulant outline, the volume of her body indicated through the negative space of the white sheet. The refined yet assured lines are echoed in the swirling array of patterns that surround her, transforming this sheet into a visual paean to beauty and femininity. ‘No longer does Matisse depict the exotic or the sensual. His drawings embody exoticism and sensuality within the purity of their means,’ Elderfield went on to describe. ‘Once more, we are shown a private world, where everything is related to everything else, but now it has been decisively close-circuited in its references. No more dreaming of the East. The drawing is Eastern. No more nostalgia for the primal. The drawing is primal. Art and representation are sources of art and representation; and Matisse, through the model, makes of the innately beautiful a securely internal world’ (ibid., p. 114).