‘If you were in the market for a Matisse drawing, you’d probably want a female portrait. And this is the ultimate female portrait,’ says Ottavia Marchitelli, Specialist Head of Works on Paper in the Impressionist and Modern Art department, of the artist’s 1938 charcoal drawing, Femme assise à la robe de taffetas.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) executed this work during a period when he was completely immersed in the practice of drawing. Having mastered pen and ink, he turned to charcoal in 1937, frequently using this medium to produce studies for paintings. As Matisse himself explained, charcoal ‘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.’
Moreover, while ink drawings allowed for almost no amendments, charcoal allowed Matisse to work and rework his marks, adding, erasing, smudging and blurring to achieve a heightened sense of volume and movement. In Femme assise à la robe de taffetas, the image of the seated woman emerges from a web of pentimenti, or visible alterations.
‘He starts with the face in one position, and then thinks about it and decides to move it a bit more to the right. But he doesn’t even bother to erase his original drawing, because that’s what charcoal is all about,’ Marchitelli explains. ‘You can change your mind. As a medium, it’s very alive. Here he is changing his mind all the time. The charcoal is so fresh, and you can really see where he intervened with his fingers.
‘In other periods of Matisse’s production, the focus is often distracted by the background. But Femme assise is all about the main subject,’ the specialist continues. ‘There is basically no background, just a woman wearing this amazing, imposing dress.
‘Actually, it’s almost more about the dress than the woman. Her features are not that relevant. Her personality is not that important. But thanks to the medium and how masterfully Matisse worked it, you can almost feel the rigid texture of the taffeta.’
In this respect Femme assise differs from many other works by Matisse, in which the character of the sitter is paramount. Femme assise is also unusually large for a drawing — it is 24 in/60 cm high — which adds to its power. ‘Thanks also to its direct provenance, the sheet is in pristine condition, which is not always the case with works on paper of this size,’ the specialist adds.
Femme assise was purchased in 1980 by the present owner from the artist’s son, Jean Matisse, and has never since been on the market. ‘The provenance is beautiful because it goes from Matisse’s family directly to the current owner. So there’s a real element of rarity,’ says Marchitelli. ‘It’s a big, strong image. What Matisse achieves with this medium here is truly amazing.’
Femme assise à la robe de taffetas will be offered in the Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper sale on 28 February at Christie’s in London.