Throughout his career, in a variety of media, Matisse repeatedly explored the formal and metaphorical potential of the female nude, either seated or standing, posed with her arms raised and clasped behind her head. “Fully exposing the naked figure, accentuating or exaggerating its forms, and stressing the sequence of complementary or opposing volumes,” Jed Morse has written, “the pose elicits a tension that serves as a hallmark of some of Matisse’s most radical inventions” (Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, exh. cat., Dallas Museum of Art, 2007, p. 142). In the present Nu II, deftly rendered in charcoal, Matisse audaciously cropped the nude figure to heighten the expressive effect of this signature motif, accentuating the opposition between the folded legs that firmly anchor the body to the ground and the sensually arched back that lifts and stretches it beyond the confines of the sheet, like Venus rising from the sea.
My drawing represents a painting executed with restricted means.”
Since the mid-1930s, drawing—previously a subsidiary medium for Matisse—had been a preeminent mode of expression and innovation for the artist. He had reached the very summit of his skills as a draughtsman, working simultaneously in two different techniques. He made highly distilled line drawings in pen and ink, unshaded and bare, in which erasure and revision were not possible. He also drew, as seen here, with pieces of charcoal, working and reworking the lines with a stump (estompe, a thick paper stick used to blend the charcoal strokes) so that the final image seems to emerge from a network of pentimenti or a miasma of shadow. Whereas the purity of pen and ink served to flatten the motif, the tonal gradient of charcoal lent itself to the expression of rounded, volumetric form. In Nu II, the rubbed highlights on the model’s left side create a subtle but effective sense of sculptural presence, conveying the impression of the body struck by light.
I have always seen drawing not as the exercise of a particular skill, but above all as a means of expression of ultimate feelings and states of mind, but a means that is condensed in order to give more simplicity and spontaneity to the expression which should be conveyed directly to the spirit of the spectator.”
In his 1939 text Notes of a Painter on his Drawing, Matisse explained that the “charcoal or stump drawing…allows me to consider simultaneously the character of the model, her human expression, the quality of surrounding light, the atmosphere and all that can only be expressed by drawing.” He went on to describe his approach to the model: “The emotional interest they inspire in me is not particularly apparent in the representation of their bodies, but often rather by the lines or the special values distributed over the whole canvas or paper and which forms its orchestration, its architecture” (quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, pp. 130-132).
Matisse drew the present Nu II early in 1947, toward the end of a ten-month stay at his family apartment on the boulevard Montparnasse in Paris. It was his longest stint in the capital since before the war, and it was not without its ordeals—temperatures that winter were bitter, coal was in short supply, and the artist’s health suffered. His creativity, however, never waned. In Paris, he produced his first mural-sized cut-outs, Océanie and Polynésie; compiled the text for his landmark album Jazz; and drew with an intensity that astonished visitors. “His concentration then is terrifying,” reported his granddaughter Jacqueline. “His talent is a physical thing, which lies in his hand… His hand leads him after he has absorbed the object, and he doesn’t look at it anymore. He just draws the result of it that is in him, like a film negative” (quoted in H. Spurling, Matisse the Master, New York, 2007, p. 447).
Nu II, as the title suggests, is the second, definitive statement in a pair of closely related drawings. Compared with Nu I, the contours of the model’s body are here smoothed and streamlined, emphasizing the lifting quality of the pose. Matisse had largely abandoned easel painting by this time—his final oils date to 1951—and the drawings represent independent, autonomous explorations rather than studies for future work. “They are realized entirely in their own terms,” John Elderfield has written, “and without exception show Matisse’s stunning mastery of this especially sensual medium. The tonal gradations are extraordinarily subtle, yet appear to have been realized very spontaneously, and the keen sense of interchange between linear figure and ground adds tautness and intensity to their compositions. At their best, they are emotionally as well as technically rich and show us a more mortal Matisse than his pure line drawings do” (The Drawings of Henri Matisse, exh. cat., The Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1984, pp. 118-119).