Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
"I do Odalisques in order to do nudes," Matisse declared to Tériade, the master printer and publisher, in 1929. "But how does one do the nude without it being artificial? And then, because I know that they exist. I was in Morocco. I have seen them" (quoted in J. Flam, Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 86). Matisse's odalisques are usually only partly nude, and may even be fully clothed; nevertheless, the artist's lush and hedonistic treatment of them in his paintings (fig. M-A, p. __) struck many as being an unseemly pursuit for a family man in his late middle age. "There was so much censure when I did the long Odalisque series!" the artist recalled to André Verdet in 1952 (quoted in J. Flam, ed., A Matisse Retrospective, New York, 1988, p. 229). Some decried what they believed to be a titillating and prurient waywardness in these pictures, while more sophisticated critics demanded a more intellectual form of modernism from one of the leading artists of the time. While the suggestion of eroticism is an inherent part of the mystique of the odalisque in European painting, even more important than the extent to which she is clothed or not is her passive and languorous demeanor. The odalisque is called upon to do no more than lounge lazily, and lose herself in reverie. It is this sense of idleness and fantasy, combined with the exotic and luxuriant decor of her secluded environment, that makes her so attractive to our voyeuristic gaze, and leaves such a seductively sensual impression on our imagination.
The young model in L'Odalisque, harmonie bleue actually has little to do with the steamy atmosphere of Orientalist convention; she appears casually and accessibly modern, and all the more appealing as she serenely regards the viewer. A significant development in these "modern" odalisques of the mid- and late 1930s is the extent to which the model, in her colorful and varied costumes, becomes a fully integrated component within the larger ensemble of decorative elements. The odalisque paintings of this period are among the most rigorously designed and strikingly orchestrated compositions that Matisse had painted since the end of the First World War. Returning to the principle of flatness as an essential fact in modernist painting, Matisse positioned himself to test anew the possibilities of form and color, and in this process, he reclaimed his status as a leading proponent of modernism in the art of his time.
Matisse had ceased easel painting between late 1929 and 1934. Following a layover in New York, his first time in America, he sailed half-way around the world to Tahiti and back during 1930. He returned to the USA later that year to participate on the jury for the Carnegie Institute International Exhibition. He met with Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who commissioned a mural for the central gallery of his museum in Merion, Pennsylvania. This became La Danse, which Matisse worked on in a large, temporary studio in Nice. He boarded ship to America again at the end of 1930 to inspect the site, and a final time in May 1933, when he accompanied the completed mural to its destination and supervised its installation. Matisse was further occupied with an important series of four retrospective exhibitions, in Berlin, Paris, Basel and New York, which gave him pause to consider his achievement thus far. He explained to Tériade, "When you have worked a long time in the same milieu, it is useful at a given moment to stop and take a voyage which will let parts of the mind rest while other parts have free rein--especially those parts repressed by the will. This stopping permits a withdrawal and consequently an examination of the past. You begin again with more certainty..." (quoted in J. Flam. ed., op. cit., 1995, p. 88).
During this period Matisse continued to draw and make etchings. His illustrations for poems by Stéphane Mallarmé were published in October, 1933, and in the following year he completed a series of drawings for a New York edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. During 1935, while engaged in a series of pen and ink drawings of the nude model in his studio, Matisse perfected the purity and purpose of his line drawing (fig. M-B, p.__). John Elderfield has written, "They are among the greatest achievements in his draughtsmanship... They realize what the comparable late 1920s ink drawings did not: decorative assimilation of the figure into the decorated unity of the sheet... Now the drawing itself is a lattice work, an all-over patterned fabric. The exotic mood of the earlier drawings disappears, with it their Turkish connotations. And so does the heavily sensual atmosphere. No longer does Matisse depict the exotic or the sensual. His drawings embody exoticism and sensuality within the purity of their means" (in The Drawings of Henri Matisse, exh. cat., Arts Council of Great Britain, 1984, pp. 113 and 114).
When Matisse resumed easel painting--somewhat tentatively at first--in late 1933 and early 1934, drawing led the way, and prompted him to take a new direction in his art. Elderfield has pointed out, "The description of objects in space increasingly gave way to denotation of objects as ideational signs" (in The Cut-Outs of Henri Matisse, New York, 1978, p. 19). "It is enough to invent signs," Matisse wrote in 1947 (quoted in J. Flam, ed. op. cit., 1995, p. 178). This new approach is plainly manifest in Grand nu couché (Nu rose) (fig. M-C, p. ___), which Matisse painted in his Nice studio during April-October 1935. The figure of the nude consists of a series of arching, serpentine arabesques, set off against grid-like decorative patterns. A floral still-life has also been reduced to a few simple outlined shapes. As he had recently done while developing the forms of the dancers in the Barnes mural, Matisse pinned cut-out paper shapes to the canvas to make alterations in the shape and positioning of the nude. This procedure helped him to visualize both figure and ground as distinct and flat color zones separated by clear contours. The use of cut papers first served as a preparatory tool, but soon evolved into the artist's his first independent cut-outs.
The blond Russian émigré Lydia Delectorskaya, then 24 years old, served as the model for Nu rose (fig. M-D, p. ___). She had helped as a studio assistant while Matisse was working on the Barnes mural, and was hired in 1934 to look after the artist's ailing wife, Amélie. She soon became indispensable in the studio, and began to pose as Matisse's favorite model. Hilary Spurling has described how Matisse worked on Nu rose: "Day by day the nude seized possession of the picture surface, twisting and sprawling, extending and retracting rubbery, elongated limbs, establishing a constantly changing rhythm between the body's restless curves and the straight lines of checked fabric, tiled walls and the edges of the canvas. The model remained absolutely still without. It was Matisse who manipulated arms and legs, pushing the elements of his simple composition to the furthest limits of distortion, but never losing contact with the reality represented by Lydia... 'My pose didn't change,' she said. 'It was comfortable and always the same'" (in Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, Volume Two, New York, 2006, p. 360).
It is clear from this passage that Matisse used his model and her pose as a point of departure from which he proceeded to compose on the canvas as he saw fit. This practice of instinctive and spontaneous invention, a kind of improvisation before his subject, in which he was not averse to proceeding by trial and error, represented a new development in his method, very different from the carefully modulated rendering of the odalisques in their contrived environments during the 1920s. Matisse was working towards a more subjective expression, a process which while underway was complex and unpredictable, but ultimately aimed for the simplification and essential purity of the image. Once the figure, objects and decorative aspects had been transformed into "signs," these elements could be altered, substituted, interchanged or entirely reworked at will, so that they that might eventually bear only a passing resemblance to the initial conception of the model in her setting. The end result represented a pure synthesis of color and form, a new pictorial reality. Matisse wrote in 1942 to his son Pierre, who had established himself as an art dealer in New York, "The painting is not a mirror reflecting what I experienced while creating it, but a powerful object, strong and expressive, which is as novel for me as for anyone else" (quoted in J. Flam, ed., op. cit., 1995, p. 143).
When Pierre Matisse first viewed Nu rose, he told his father, "It's the one in which you've renewed yourself, it's a sequel to the great decorations" (quoted in H. Spurling, op. cit., p. 360). Compared to the lavish odalisques of the 1920s, the Nu rose is an austere and laconic statement that defines the very essence of the art of painting in its most modern aspect. It carries the force of a declaration that a new path had been discovered and must now be followed. In order to capitalize on this achievement, to carry this "renewal" further along these promising lines, and to experiment with more complex and subtle color harmonies, Matisse brought back into play the richness and variety of his decorative motifs, which lay at his fingertips in the luxuriant world of the odalisque. The decoration in Nu rose is minimal, consisting of the simple rectangular patterns of a floor covering and a tiled wall. Matisse now returned to his trove of patterned textiles and fabrics, which he had been collecting and using for years, including items he had picked up during trips to Algiers and Biskra in 1906, to Morocco in 1912, and from the markets in Paris and Nice (fig. M-DD, p. __).
Matisse had also accumulated chests of costumes, which held, as Spurling has noted, "Moroccan jackets, robes, blouses, boleros, caps and scarves, from which his models could be kitted out in outfits distantly descended--like Bakst's ballet, and a whole series of films using Nice locations in the 1920s as a substitute for the mysterious East--from the French painterly tradition of orientalisation" (in Matisse: His Art and his Textiles, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 29). Matisse continually added to this collection, so that it required its own storage room when he moved to a new apartment in Cimiez, above Nice, in 1939. There were the high couture dresses that Paul Poiret's sister had made for the artist's wife and daughter, a blue ball gown that had been created specifically for Matisse to showcase in his paintings, a group of Romanian blouses (which the artist made famous in a series of drawings and paintings, also done in 1937), and even six couture dresses that the artist picked up in an end-of-season sale in the Paris garment district.
The rich potential inherent in these resources became apparent in the series of canvases, including L'Odalisque, harmonie bleue, that Matisse painted in early 1937. By all appearances this was a period of feverish activity for the artist, and between 24 January and 4 February especially, Matisse was certainly on a roll, as he painted the present picture and four other odalisques. Each is a consummate work in itself, while being closely related to the others -- a single, quick fuse of inspiration clearly sparked its way through this sequence. Please note that the titles that follow are those given by Lydia in her book covering the works of 1935-1939, Henri Matisse: With apparent ease (cited in "Literature" above).
Two paintings of a woman attired in a striped Algerian robe set the stage in the first days of the New Year 1937: Hélène, painted on 3 January (Dauberville, no. 732) and Hélène au cabochon, done on 10 January (D., no. 747; fig. M-E, p. __). The sitter in these pictures was Lydia's friend Hélène Galitzine, a dark-haired woman, also a Russian, who was Matisse's other preferred model during this period. Hélène appeared again in Petite odalisque à la robe violette (D., no. 741). Around this time Matisse made a charcoal drawing that depicts Lydia reclining on a divan, and, in the left foreground, a vase of anemones and three pieces of fruit placed on a salver set atop a stand draped with a patterned cloth (fig. M-F, p. ____). The artist appears to stand above her, resulting in a steep viewpoint that flattens the pictorial space. The idea for this reclining pose set within a vertical format, with a floral accessory, was possibly derived from a painting by Gustave Courbet, La Blonde endormie, 1849, which Matisse had owned since 1917(fig. M-G, p. __). Lydia likewise possessed long, golden hair.
Matisse annotated this drawing as "dessin préparatoire pour L'Odalisque harmonie bleue," his title for the present painting, which, as Lydia has recorded, he painted on 25 and 27 January. Bernheim-Jeune has listed this title as Odalisque en gris aux anémones; Matisse's own description, harmonie bleue, is perhaps a more accurate description of the subtle chromatic shifts that are detectable among the cool tones in this composition, not quite so neutral as the color gray would imply, which the artist created from admixtures of black, ultramarine and viridian, tinted with white. Lydia served as the model for this painting. She is attired in a caraco, a chiffon jacket with translucent lace sleeves, and green billowing silk pants, known as a saroual. The contours of her figure, gently outlined in black, dovetail with the curving stems of the flowers, so that figure and bouquet seem fluidly intertwined. Matisse was fond of adding flowers and plants as a visual complement to the female form, in order to evoke an essential idea of the femme-fleur, which symbolized the natural qualities of a woman's beauty, sensuality and fertility. Matisse extended the use of floral motifs into the cloth that covers the table, and in the designs on the bunched pillows on which Lydia inclines her upper body. Elsewhere Matisse employed fabrics with simple broad and pin-striped patterns as counterpoint to the curving arabesques that dominate the composition. Matisse remarked to Louis Aragon in 1942, "I do not paint things, only the differences between things." Jack Flam explains:
"The interaction between various levels of materiality in Matisse's painting is one of the most salient features of his art, and the way he orchestrated such effects is the closest thing to a 'method' that can be identified in his works. This transformative drive is apparent in all the media in which he worked...and seems to be the most persistent principle behind his art... Decorative motifs played an important role in Matisse's strategy for articulating these feelings. They provided him with a constructive element that was pictorially flexible and could also act as a subtle, but powerful, symbolic device for expressing his vision of a world in perpetual flux. Such motifs furnished dynamic elements that could be played off against the geometrical forms of architecture and made to rhyme with figures and objects. They also allowed him to suggest the interactions between different orders of things--to extend the energy within individual things beyond their physical boundaries and to create, in effect, a kind of metaphysics of decoration" (in ibid., p. 34).
"This transformative drive" can be witnessed, running in high gear, in the three paintings that Matisse completed within the next week, in which he further adapted the composition, motifs and basic decorative elements--including the green saroual--he had just employed in L'Odalisque, harmonie bleue. He painted La Robe violette aux anemones (D., no. 743, fig. M-H, p. __) on 28, 29 and 30 January. Lydia was again the model. He must have worked concurrently on Odalisque à la robe persane jaune, anémones , (D., no. 745; fig. M-I, p.__); as Lydia noted, it was completed by the end of the month. Hélène was the sitter in that picture. It was perhaps the alternating use of Lydia and Hélène that enabled Matisse to successfully create compositions that are such distinctively characterized variations on the same basic theme. Matisse wrote in 1939, "My models, human figures, are never just 'extras' in an interior. They are the principal theme of my work... The emotional interest they inspire in me is not particularly apparent in the representation of their bodies, but often rather by the lines and or the special values distributed over the whole canvas or paper, which form its orchestration, its architecture" (quoted in J. Flam, ed., op. cit, 1995, pp. 131 and 132). Lydia returned to pose for the final (and largest) canvas in this remarkable group, La Robe violette aux renoncules, (D. no. 744; fig. M-J, p. ___), painted on 1, 3 and 4 February.
The serial procedure at work in this small group of odalisques may anticipate, in microcosm, the extended sequence of Thèmes et variations that Matisse drew in 1941-1942, and approaching the end of his career, the great Vence interiors, his final easel paintings, that he worked on during 1947-1948. Here Matisse prefigures the sequential method that Picasso practiced his late works, as in the variations on Delacroix's Les Femmes d'Alger, and Femme accroupie au costume turc (Jacqueline), which is also featured in this catalogue. Matisse described his new way of working to Tériade in 1936, just before he painted the odalisques of January-February 1937; these statements were partly revised for a monograph that Raymond Escholier published in 1937. Matisse wrote:
"In my latest paintings, I united the acquisitions of the last twenty years to my essential core, to my very essence.
"The reaction of each stage is as important as the subject. For this reaction comes from me and not from the subject. It is from the basis of my interpretation that I continually react until my work comes into harmony with me... At each stage, I reach a balance, a conclusion. At the next sitting, if I find there is a weakness in the whole, I make my way back into the picture by means of the weakness--I re-enter through the breach-ZÉnd I reconceive the whole. Thus everything becomes fluid again and as each element is only one of the component forces (as in an orchestration), the whole can be changed in appearance but the feeling sought still remains the same. A black could very well replace a blue, since basically the expression derives from the relationships. One is not bound to a blue, to a green or to a red, whose timbres can be introverted or replaced if the feeling so dictates... At the final stage the painter finds himself freed and his emotion exists complete in his work" (quoted in J. Flam, ed., op. cit., 1995, p. 123).
(fig. M-A) Henri Matisse, Odalisque aux magnolias, Nice, 1923 or 1924. Private collection. BARCODE 26007540
(fig. M-B) Henri Matisse, Nu dans l'atelier, Nice, 1935. Sold, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2004, lot 7. BARCODE 23154582
(fig. M-C) Henri Matisse, Grand nu couché (Nu rose), April-October 1935. The Cone Collection, The Baltimore Museum of Art. BARCODE 26007502
(fig. M-D) Lydia Delectorskaya, photograph by Henri Matisse. BARCODE 26007564
(fig. M-DD) North African costumes and textiles collected by Matisse, Photograph, The Librairie Ernest Flammarion. BARCODE 26007496
(fig. M-E) Henri Matisse, Hélène aui cabachon, Nice, 10 January 1937. Sold. Christie's, New York, 15 May 1990, lot 57. BARCODE 26007571
(fig. M-F) Henri Matisse, Etude pour 'L'Odalisque, harmonie bleue', Nice, January 1937. Private collection. BARCODE 26007588
(fig. M-G) Gustave Courbet, La Blonde endormie, 1849. Formerly owned by Henri Matisse; Private collection. BARCODE 26007557
(fig. M-H) Henri Matisse, La Robe violette aux anémones, Nice, 28-30 January 1937. Private collection. BARCODE 26007595
(fig. M-I) Henri Matisse, Odalisque à la robe persane jaune, anémones, Nice, January 1937. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE 26007519
(fig. M-J) Henri Matisse, La Robe violette aux renoncules, Nice, 1, 3 and 4 February, 1937. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. BARCODE 26007601