‘I depend entirely on my model,’ wrote
Henri Matisse in 1939. The artist was drawn to powerful
women whom he considered his collaborators, challenging and
inspiring him to greater heights of creativity. Yet it is
fair to say he demanded much of them. As his biographer Hilary
Spurling writes, ‘They had to learn to live with the unbearable
tension Matisse generated when working.’
Their reward was to be depicted as sensuous Ottoman odalisques
or dancing girls in blazing strokes of red, ultramarine and
yellow. On 27 February, paintings by Matisse of his models that span the great colourist’s remarkable career will be offered for sale at Christie’s in the Hidden Treasures auction.
The first was painted in Paris between 1916-1917 and depicts
a young, raven-haired woman called Lorette with whom the artist came to be obsessed. At the time of their meeting, Matisse was restless,
having reached the limits of his interest in pure abstraction.
Lorette reawakened his passion for the female form with her chameleon-like ability to transform her appearance, vacillating
between ethereal angel and Dionysian temptress.
‘The model must mark you, awaken in you an emotion which you seek in turn to express’ — Henri Matisse
According to Spurling, Matisse responded like ‘a dancer taking to the floor, painting her energetically from odd angles and in strange perspectives.’ The picture, Tête de femme penchée (Lorette), depicts the model at close range, her sombre, kohl-rimmed eyes confronting the viewer and revealing the force of her personality. Their relationship was a love affair played out on canvas, and it continued until December 1917, when Matisse moved his family to the South of France.
Here he began studying the work of Michelangelo at the local
École des arts décoratifs, writing to his friend the Fauve
artist Albert Marquet (1885-1955) that he had become ‘completely
ensnared’ with the sculptor’s semi-reclining female nude
La Notte. Matisse’s picture Nu demi couché,
arguably captures this obsession. It depicts an unknown woman
reclining on a white sheet, cool and austere, her alabaster
skin is suggestive of a sculpture.
It took a year for Matisse to find a replacement for Lorette, but in Nice
he met the teenager Antoinette Arnoud, a shy but self-assured
model with an innate sense of style. Nu sur la chaise longue was painted in 1920 and depicts the naked Antoinette
reclining on a red chaise longue, her hair wrapped in a white
turban. Matisse wrote around this time that, ‘The model must
mark you, awaken in you an emotion which you seek in turn
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Danseuse assise sur une table, fond rouge (pictured top) was painted in 1942 during a critical
and highly productive period of the artist’s life. While Matisse was holed
up in the former Hôtel Régina in Nice, into his life came
the vivacious Italian countess, Carla Avogadro.
The painting that emerged from their collaboration encompassed
the artist’s radical experimentations with flattened colour,
distortion and bold line. Carla’s body is an arching, serpentine
shape, the visual expression of suppleness.
The poet Guillaume
Apollinaire once wrote that Matisse’s paintings reminded
him of an orange ‘bursting with light’ — this picture is
a gloriously vibrant example of that.