In the late 1920s, Henri Matisse (1869-1954) took a break from painting. The artist’s obsessive desire to delve deep below surface level had driven him to the edge of collapse, and he needed a rest: ‘I had done absolutely all I could for the time being,’ he said.
Liberation came in the form of sculpture, as he discovered in the manipulation of clay a physical release from the anxieties of the pictorial plane. Through sculpture, Matisse was able to explore the problems of representation: how to show what you can touch. ‘When I found it in sculpture, I used it in painting,’ he said. It led to a prolific era of sculpture-making for the artist, one that lasted until the mid-1930s when he abandoned the form for his pioneering paper cut-outs.
Matisse often claimed that he was not an instinctive sculptor, saying, ‘I sculpted as a painter. I did not sculpt like a sculptor.’ Yet he had a natural affinity with the medium, balancing energy and expression to create sensual works that reflected the creative and destructive process of art and his restless imagination.
As a student at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1891, Matisse copied plaster casts to understand the rules of classicism — and, once learned, he set out to break them. Such iconoclasm led him to be described as the ‘King of the Fauves’ (wild beasts).
Conceived in Nice in 1927, the bronze Reclining Nude II, offered in the Art Impressionniste & Moderne evening sale in Paris on 4 April 2023, embodies this radicalism. Matisse removed the sculpture from its base, isolating it in time and space — an action that anticipated the work of the post-war abstractionists of the 1950s.
Reclining Nude II is one of three works that make up the ‘Odalisque’ series. The figure is partly inspired by Ariadne, the classical goddess whom Matisse considered the personification of feminine sensuality. The pose first appeared in the artist’s painting The Joy of Life, dating from 1905-06 (below), and continued to dominate his output from 1917, when he moved to Nice, until his death in 1954.
Matisse liked the earthiness and malleability of clay. His early sculptures look more like wood-carvings than clay models, incorporating deep cuts from the knife blade and the imprints of the artist’s fingers.
Valerie Didier, head of sale, Impressionist & Modern Art in Paris, explains that Matisse’s sculpture is a good way of understanding the artist’s creative process: ‘It was where he experimented and took risks, and the evidence is there, on the very lively surface.’ Those risks also affected his health, with the artist sometimes standing for hours at work until his feet bled.
By the time Matisse started work on Reclining Nude II, that raw expressiveness had relaxed into the casual sensuality of a real woman stretched out on a divan. ‘It has an organic simplicity,’ says Didier. ‘It is smoother than his earlier sculptures.’
The model for Reclining Nude II is thought to have been Henriette Darricarrère, who was scratching out a living as an extra when Matisse spotted her at a film studio in Nice. Darricarrère personified the impoverished exile in Nice after the First World War, a young woman trying to escape the hardships of rented rooms and short-term employment in a world blindsided by violence and destruction.
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She was as industrious and intense as Matisse, and they worked together for eight years before she left to get married. ‘I think this intimate bronze is one of their most powerful collaborations,’ says Didier. ‘It is a portrait of sensuality and survival.’
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