Henri Matisse (1868-1954)
The Property from a Distinguished Private Collection THE SEDUCTION OF THE SERAGLIO: The Odalisques of Matisse and Picasso By John Steinert There was a very popular type of adventure opera in Vienna during the 18th century, which took as its plot the rescue of a fair European maiden who had been captured by pirates and sold as a slave into the harem of an Ottoman potentate. The hero's mission was to undertake a reverse kidnapping of the poor Christian girl. He needed to concoct a ruse to enter the seraglio, the enclosed palace quarters which housed the harem. With the exception of its master and his eunuch guards, access to the seraglio was forbidden to all men, Muslim and infidel alike; to get caught would result in horrible tortures and death. These plots reflected not too distant historical memories: in 1683 the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed IV besieged Vienna. They had been miraculously turned back, but they still ruled the nearby Balkan countries. Composers enjoyed setting these stories to music--it gave them the chance to include colorful instrumental pieces scored alla turca, with crashing cymbals, drums, and high winds. By far the finest example of this genre, the most popular in its time and now the most famous, is Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). The hero's quest is an allegory for the tests to which loyalty and love would be subjected before two lovers can be united. The exotic backdrop of the seraglio heightened the sense of the mysterious, the forbidden and romantic. No other setting at that time possessed such power to capture and intrigue the imagination. This was the seduction of the seraglio. Orientalism, the European fascination with the arts and culture of the Islamic peoples of North Africa and the Near East, had its heyday in painting during the latter part of the 19th century and in the years before the First World War, when Western colonialist expansion in these lands was at its height. In the hands of its practitioners, academicians mostly, Orientalism was essentially a conservative style that was illustrative in intent and anecdotal in content. The skillful Orientalist might employ some novel painterly and coloristic effects, but these were usually a means to an end, which was to depict, with some degree of truthfulness, the unfamiliar people, customs and landscapes he encountered and observed in his own travels or in the accounts of others. With the ascendancy of modernism, the rift widened between the avowedly progressive painters of the new avant-garde and the larger body of conservative artists who populated the academies and sought their success in official and conventional venues. After the advent of Fauvism and Cubism, and the development of non-objective art, a truly modern painter could not regard contemporary Orientalist painting without expressing his disdain for its old-fashioned style and often sentimentalized content, all of which seemed hopelessly stale and out-of-step with the time. Numerous artists plying the Orientalist manner in ateliers across Europe continued to churn out pictures for popular consumption, as indeed there remained an appetite for Orientalist paintings well into the 20th century. There were even occasional apostates and crossover artists among the modernists. As a young man Emile Bernard had befriended and emulated Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cézanne. He turned, however, to an old master style around the time he visited Istanbul in 1894 and painted numerous Orientalist subjects in a conservatively realist manner. He renounced all of the modernist principles which he had once taken an active and important role in promulgating, and spent the rest of his career painting irrelevant works that belied the extraordinary promise of his early career. Kees van Dongen was adept at dressing up Orientalist kitsch in the rough forms and strident colors of Fauve painting. In 1906 he painted a troupe of belly-dancers performing in Paris (inauthentically topless for leering Western eyes), and he made numerous Orientalist paintings following a trip to Morocco in 1910, and to Egypt in 1913. Van Dongen understood the tastes of his clientele, and found that his style of Orientalism sold easily and well. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso are, of course, artists of an altogether higher and more important order. If Orientalism had definitely and irredeemably become passé as a serious art form, what then do we make of these two paragons of modern art, both of whom were both strongly drawn to various elements of this retro style? Moreover, one cannot overlook the fact that they appropriated one of the most hackneyed subjects in all of the Orientalist repertory, the odalisque, the harem slave girl, a surprisingly exotic and out-of-our-world character to put at the center of an otherwise thoroughly modern painting. Matisse painted odalisques as the mainstay of his art for more than two decades while he was at the height of his career. Picasso claimed to have inherited the odalisque from Matisse upon the latter's death in 1954, and in one form or another, this subject dominated the work of his final years, until his death in 1973. During this time younger modern artists had very different ideas about the forms and content of art, as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism dominated the scene in New York. For this reason it seems all the more remarkable that Matisse and Picasso found something so enticing in the mystique of the odalisque that they allowed themselves to indulge in a subject that was largely sheer fantasy, and was already something of a relic from the past century. The odalisque was moreover a subject that in their day attracted artists mainly of a lesser stripe, although one could look back to the previous century and find some first-class painters of the odalisque as well. [INSERT SOME MANNER OF ORIENTALIST-LOOKING DECORATIVE SYMBOL] The term odalisque derives from the Turkish odalik, the designation for a lowly slave-girl and chambermaid (oda, "chamber"), still virgin, who might rise to the status of concubine or consort to the Sultan, and ultimately become one of his wives, if she could produce a son. She was quartered with others of her station in the Sultan's harem, consisting of his concubines, wives, their children and eunuch guards. Their residence, also known as a harem, was of course forbidden to men (haram in Persian, harLONG MARK ONim in Arabic, "forbidden," usually referring to women's quarters). The palace or enclosed court in which they lived is often known as a seraglio in the West, derived from the Italian seragglio (saray in Turkish). Because the harem was absolutely off-limits to foreigners, few had any accurate information about what actually transpired in a seraglio, or made an effort to understand the social context for this polygamous arrangement in Arab and Ottoman society. 19th century European values held that the idea of the harem was morally corrupt and indefensible, a judgment which at the same time lent this custom its tantalizingly erotic interest. The secluded lives of harem women became a mysterious and titillating source of fantasy in the Western imagination, abetted by the reading of Antoine Galland's French translation (1707-1717) of the 14th century Syrian manuscript of tales from The Thousand and One Nights. Queen Scheherazade, fated to be killed following her wedding night, regales her king with an unfinished story each evening, and in this way prolongs her life for 1,001 nights, until he relents and pardons her. Sir Richard Burton published his unexpurgated English translation in 1885. Elements of the popular mythology surrounding the East, so closely wrapped up with erotic fantasy, must surely have appealed to both Matisse and Picasso. Matisse was by nature the more monkish type; despite frequent and annoying rumors to the contrary, he did not sleep with his models, foregoing all such contacts for the sake of his work. Picasso, who no doubt had a more active and varied love life than Matisse, did sleep with his models. They were his wife, a mistress or a girlfriend--he disliked professional models, and needed an emotional attachment with a woman in order to paint her. Matisse perhaps needed to distance himself from a direct engagement with the nude by adopting an Orientalist guise. He claimed "I do Odalisques in order to do nudes." However, he did not view the odalisque as a convention--it was for him a real subject. Unlike Picasso, Matisse had been to the Orient, he travelled to Algeria in 1906, and stayed twice in Morocco in 1912. He traveled very far east, to Tahiti, in 1930. He asked, "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). While he was in Morocco, Matisse was barely able to find an indigenous girl to pose for him fully-clothed, and he settled for a teen-aged prostitute that his hotel-keeper had found for him, but even then a nude sitting was out of the question (fig. O-A, p.__). If there were odalisques to be seen in Morocco, Matisse did not paint them then and there. He nevertheless returned with some memory of the place that grew with the years, and nurtured an indelible fantasy centered on the idea of the odalisque, rendered all the more potent because so much in this experience was forbidden and inaccessible by custom, as it was for most Europeans. A decade later, while painting in his Nice studio, he would conjure up this powerful memory time and again, and project it on his canvases, as a nude or partly clothed model decked out in Orientalist garb lounged before him, set on a stage that he contrived from gorgeous fabrics and Eastern wares. This was as far as it went--whatever sensual or erotic feelings he experienced, he sublimated into his art. Matisse told André Verdet in 1952, "I had to catch my breath, to relax and forget my worries, far from Paris. The Odalisques were the bounty of a happy nostalgia, a lovely vivid dream, and the almost ecstatic, enchanted days and nights of the Moroccan climate. I felt an irresistible need to express that ecstasy, in corresponding colored rhythms, rhythms of sunny and lavish figures and colors... In this ambience of languid relaxation, beneath the sun-drenched torpor that bathes things and people, a great tension smolders, a specifically pictorial tension that arises from the interplay and mutual relations of the various elements. I dampened those tensions so that an impression of happy calm could emerge from these paintings, a more or less amiable serenity in the balance of deliberately massed forces" (quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse: A Retrospective, New York, 1988, pp. 230 and 239-240). As Hilary Spurling has noted (see p. ___), Nice was the center of a flourishing film industry during the 1920s, and the city's Mediterranean architecture and decor made do as sets for movies based on stories set in the Near East. Some of Matisse's models served as extras on these movie sets. The sense of Orientalist fantasy that Matisse treasured in his collection of textiles and costumes (fig. O-AA, p. __), many of which he acquired in the markets of Nice, and the sensuality that he infused within his pictures, were in good part a reflection of the city in which he lived. Nice was for Matisse the port and portal, his perpetual opening unto the Orient, and this was no doubt largely responsible for the pleasure he derived from living there. Matisse was a complex man, and while his inner life of fantasy was likely less subject to the extremes that Picasso's personality embraced, it was probably in its way no less rich, only more guarded and discrete. Picasso's sense of fantasy, and indeed his expression of eroticism, were far more overt, and proclaimed themselves quite brazenly whenever the artist turned to image-making. His fantasies about the odalisque fill his late sketchbooks, especially in early 1968 (fig. P-H, p. ___). Odalisques appear in the etchings of the 347 series as well; one of the latter depicts a scene out of The Thousand and One Nights (Baer, vol. 6, no. 1513). The girls are usually nude and always voluptuous, and Picasso often transforms them into Renaissance and Baroque courtesans, artist's models and bordello whores. These licentious ladies are a far cry from the odalisques that Picasso claimed to have received as his legacy from Matisse. Here again popular culture, in the form of film and later television, played an important role in keeping alive the mystique of the odalisque. John Richardson has observed, "Even television played a role in the development of Picasso's late style. To distract herself during the long hours when her husband was working, Jacqueline had bought a television set. The two of them developed a taste for old movies. One film in particular, The Lives of the Bengal Lancers, triggered a series of drawings--a sultan surrounded by big-bosomed odalisques (1968)--inspired not so much by the lancers as some Orientalist concept of their foe" (in Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 29). Richardson also cited Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960)--Picasso remarked, "I don't what's happening to me lately. I do nothing but lancers, musketeers, warriors and bullfighters" (ibid.). To this list of motion pictures one may probably add other sword-and-sandal and Biblical epics, and some of the adventure films based on or derived from characters in The Thousand and One Nights: The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Sinbad (1935), Arabian Nights (1942), and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944). These movies carried the conventions of Orientalist fantasy into the age of the silver screen, and further diminished the role of the painter in supplying these subjects for popular consumption. [DITTO DECORATIVE SYMBOL] Some of these insights into the reasons for Matisse's and Picasso's interest in the Orientalist odalisque have been drawn by inference and are admittedly speculative. A more reliable guide to their motivation may be found in the influences absorbed from other artists that Matisse and Picasso have openly acknowledged or are clearly found in their work. In stature and by measure of their impact on others, the greatest of the painters who worked with Orientalist subjects are Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Both Matisse and Picasso shared a profound interest in the work of each of these painters, and these influences, held in common, are a major element in story of the friendship and rivalry between these two great modern artists. The 1905 Salon d'Automne is famous for the first showing of Fauve paintings by Matisse and his friends. Matisse, Picasso and other artists would also remember it for an eye-opening retrospective exhibition of the works of Ingres. This artist was a classicist through and through, a painter with a strong and unerring eye for detail, yet there were odd and seemingly willful distortions in his figures that seemed to anticipate and justify modern experimentation with form. Ingres created the model for all subsequent depictions of the reclining harem girl in his Grande Odalisque, painted in 1814 (fig. O-B, p. ____). Like Matisse, Ingres used the subject of the odalisque as a pretext to paint the nude. Unlike Matisse--and like Picasso--Ingres had never been to the East. He orientalized his model with the addition of a multi-colored wrapped headdress, a peacock feather fan, a Turkish waterpipe and incense burner. The painting's most salient characteristic is the artificial elongation of the figure's lower body, flanks and limbs, effects which have beguiled viewers and intrigued painters of the nude ever since. Matisse's Grand nu couché (Nu rose) (fig. M-C, p. __) is a direct descendent of Ingres' odalisque. Picasso was probably alluding to Ingres' painting, even while employing a very different pose, in his Femme au bonnet turc, 1955 (fig. P-I, p.___). The painting by Ingres that made an even greater impression is Le Bain turc, 1862 (fig. O-C, p. ___). Here is the grand fantasy of the seraglio in all of its luscious detail, a peep-hole view, as it were, into a steamy chamber where a score of voluptuous nude beauties have arrayed themselves in the most inviting poses, eating, drinking tea, dancing, playing music, and even caressing each other in a more than kindly, sisterly way. This hothouse atmosphere aside, Le Bain turc is a tour-de-force in the rendering of multiple nude figures, each distinctively posed and arranged within an ensemble that is perfectly dovetailed and harmonized, while the distance between the groups of women in the fore- and backgrounds has been slightly telescoped in another of Ingres' subtly calculated distortions. In the year after he viewed the Ingres exhibition, Picasso painted Le Harem (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 321; fig. O-D, p.____), and he returned to Le Bain turc countless times thereafter, especially in his late works (fig. P-H, p. ___). Matisse noted Ingres' statement that "Drawing is the probity of art" (quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., 1995, p. 126), which could have applied to his approach to drawing as well (fig. M-B, p. ___). Picasso would have concurred, as evidenced in his Ingresque neoclassicist drawings done at the end of and following the First World War. Many years later, summing up all that modern figure painters owed to Ingres, Picasso declared, "One must paint like Ingres; we must be like Ingres" (quoted in J. Richardson, exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 36). The art of Eugène Delacroix is held up as the Romantic side on the coin of French painting in the first half of the 19th century, while Ingres occupies the classical side on the reverse. They were complementary indeed, and together served as the driving and defining stylistic agents in the art of their time. One might think of Ingres/Delacroix as the Matisse/Picasso of their era, without trying to precisely align those characteristics of their work they may have held in parallel. Apart from his gift of liberating local color from localized treatment to something more subjectively fluid and atmospheric, Delacroix is important in the present context for having created the odalisque as a figure not invented, but actually seen, in his two versions of Les Femmes d'Alger (1834; fig. P-A, p.___ , and 1849; fig. P-B, p.___). Delacroix traveled to Morocco in 1832 while attached to a political mission and spent six months there, drawing and making watercolors, which served as a storehouse of ideas to which he returned for years to come. During a brief layover in Algiers on his way home to France, he was given the extraordinary opportunity to visit the women's quarters in a residence belonging to an Algerian engineer, who had three wives. The resulting painting was Delacroix's first major work to come out of his Moroccan trip. Lee Johnson has written, "It enabled him to find a synthesis between the classical tradition, in which he had been educated and trained as a painter, and exotic orientalism, to which he was drawn by temperament" (in Delacroix in Morocco, exh. cat., Institute de Monde Arabe, Paris, 1994, p. 116). In this respect, and in regard to an acquiring an authentic experience of the subjects he painted, Delacroix set the example for painters of all persuasions who later traveled to North Africa. Matisse noted in a statement made to Tériade in 1951, referring to his own trips to Morocco in 1912, "The voyages to Morocco helped me to make contact with nature again better than did the application of a lively but somewhat limiting theory, Fauvism. I found the landscapes of Morocco just as they had been described in the paintings of Delacroix"(quoted in J. Flam, ed., op. cit., 1995, pp. 201-202). Picasso spent more than a decade thinking about Delacroix's Les Femmes d'Alger before he set down to paint his own landmark series of fifteen variations on it in late 1954 and early 1955 (fig. P-C, p. ___). The painting by Picasso offered in this catalogue, Femme accroupie au costume turc, was also painted in 1955. Picasso's model was his new companion Jacqueline Roque (whom he married in 1961), whom he cast as the central femme d'Alger in Delacroix's two versions of this subject. When standing before Delacroix's painting in the Louvre, Picasso simply remarked to Françoise Gilot, "That bastard. He's really good" (quoted F. Gilot, Life with Picasso, New York 1964, p. 203). Renoir, the third link in this chain of Orientalist influence on modern painting, traveled twice to Algeria, in 1881 and 1882. He was the only painter among the Impressionists to a make Orientalist subjects a significant part of his oeuvre. He had already done a studio series of Orientalist paintings during the early 1870s, including a reclining girl in a sumptuous North African costume, Une Femme d'Alger (Odalisque), 1870 (Daulte, no. 48; The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and Parisiennes habillées en algériennes (Le Harem),1875 (Daulte, no. 84; fig. O-E, p. __), a rather risqué takeoff on Delacroix's Les Femmes d'Alger. While in Algeria, Renoir painted landscapes and seventeen figure paintings, most of which he did during his second stay. Because Islamic law forbid the picturing of people or animals in art, and custom required women to appear veiled in public or in the presence of strangers, it proved no easier to find local women to pose for him than it had been for Delacroix nearly a half-century earlier, and than it would be for Matisse three decades later. His sitters were mostly Algerian-born French, visitors from France, or Jewish women. He painted Algérienne assise in 1881 (Daulte, no. 367; fig. O-F, p. __); her identity is unknown and it is unclear whether this portrait was done during the artist's first trip or back in Paris before he returned to Algiers the following year. Matisse met Renoir on the last day of 1917, his own forty-eighth birthday, during his first winter stay in Nice. He visited the old and ailing painter several more times in 1918. Renoir had been suffering from crippling arthritis for years, yet he continued to paint daily, resting only on Sundays. Matisse was deeply moved by the old man's fortitude and his unshakable dedication to his art. He would have viewed Renoir's most recent paintings, including some odalisques (fig. O-G, p. __). Jack Flam has written: "He must have been impressed by Renoir's unabashed enthusiasm for female beauty as by his lively courage and curiosity... Matisse was not yet known as a painter of sensual nudes; he had not been a painter of nudes at all, and most of those he had done were not notably erotic. His libidinous impulses had been largely sublimated in his painting, embedded in the pictorial language rather than overtly expressed in the subject. Renoir gave him the impetus to make new contact with his own sensuality. After twenty years of bourgeois family life... Matisse in his late forties seems to have wanted to learn how to be young again" (in Matisse: The Man and His Art, Ithaca, NY, 1986, p. 473). Matisse returned the favor to Renoir by finding his friend a new model, seventeen-year-old Andrée Heuchling, known as Dedée. Her lively presence inspired a renewed vigor in Renoir, and enhanced the glorious Indian summer of his final years. Matisse had already embarked on his own odalisque paintings when Renoir died in 1919. Just as Picasso claimed to have inherited the odalisque from Matisse, so Matisse could have similarly stated that he received the odalisque as a parting gift from Renoir. Picasso became interested in Renoir's late paintings not long after Matisse had befriended the old painter. In 1919 Picasso began to show at Paul Rosenberg's gallery on La rue Boëtie, just down the street from his own new residence. Rosenberg did much of his business, making many of his most expensive sales, in Impressionist paintings. He had a large inventory of Renoir's pictures, including the artist's late work. Picasso delved through them, and discovered that Renoir had been engaged with issues in which he was currently interested as well. He noticed that Renoir had turned to the nude as a way of moving away from the transient effects of Impressionism, and fostering a dialogue with tradition in his work, a pursuit which enabled him to connect with Ingres, Delacroix and earlier masters. Picasso purchased one of Renoir's bathers, Eurydice, 1895-1900 (Musée Picasso, Paris). Michael C. FitzGerald has written, "The fleshy women lounging in the hot sun for which Renoir became famous in the last decades of his life were not merely escapist fantasies of sensual abandon. The classical poses of these monumental nudes evoke ancient origins, while their coiffed hair and tanned bodies place them in the modern Mediterranean At Paul Rosenberg's gallery, Picasso could not have escaped these elephantine creations of Renoir's later years if he tried... There is little doubt that Picasso's Neoclassicism of the early 1920s is substantially based on Renoir's re-creation of an Arcadian past" (in Making Modernism: Picasso and the Creation of the Art Market for Twentieth Century Art, New York, 1995, p. 106). Picasso ended up owning seven paintings and drawings by Renoir--the only other artist represented more numerously in his collection was Matisse. [DITTO INSERT DECORATIVE SYMBOL] It becomes clear that the choice that both Matisse and Picasso made to feature the odalisque in their paintings stemmed partly from this subject's traditional appeal for older, white male painters, in that it offered itself as a rejuvenating, sensual experience, felt all the more intensely because this subject was tinged by a century or more of convention which brought to this subject enticingly foreign, exotic, and erotic connotations. As importantly, odalisque was a subject that stood for an entire tradition that connected several of the finest painters of the previous century, and represented a powerful, unbroken chain of continuity within that tradition. To paint the odalisque was a direct means of engaging these masters, to measure the scope, vision and accomplishment of one's own art against theirs. These were issues and choices that carried their own imperative, irrespective of time and place, and it was appropriate that the subject which facilitated this task also exist outside the context of modern reality. The odalisque satisfied all of these needs. In painting the odalisque, Matisse and Picasso carried her forward and made her modern, making her one more useful vantage point from which one could regard the past, present and future of painting in the 20th century. Her days of service, however, were virtually done. As Picasso painted the odalisques in his Femmes d'Alger variations he was, in effect, writing their epitaph and raising their monument. The world in which she had once flourished would soon change forever. On 1 November 1954, two days before Matisse died, the Algerian Front du Libération Nationale (FLN) issued its proclamation calling for the establishment of an independent and sovereign state of Algeria. They simultaneously unleashed the Toussaint Rouge, their campaign of terrorist attacks against French official interests in Algeria. By the time Picasso painted his Jacqueline au costume turc series in November 1955, many thousands of civilians had been killed, and the fighting only promised to become worse. Algeria finally gained its freedom from France in 1962. The French colonial experience in North Africa, which had lasted more than a century and a quarter, and had helped given rise to and nurtured the fantasy of the odalisque in European painting, was now a thing of the past. Matisse had painted the twilight of the odalisque, and now Picasso provided the final chapter, marking the end of the line for a tradition, a style, and a vision of loveliness. (fig. O-A) Henri Matisse, Sur la terrasse, Tangier, Morocco, 1912-1913. State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. BARCODE 26007533 (fig. O-AA) North African costumes and textiles collected by Matisse. Photograph, The Librairie Ernest Flammarion. BARCODE 26007526 (fig. O-B) J.-A.-D. Ingres, Grande Odalisque, 1814, Musée du Louvre, Paris. BARCODE 26007373 (fig. O-C) J.-A.-D. Ingres, Le Bain turc, 1862. Musée du Louvre, Paris. BARCODE 26007472 (fig. O-D) Pablo Picasso, Le Harem, Gosol, summer 1906. The Cleveland Museum of Art. BARCODE 26007465 (fig. O-E) Pierre-August Renoir, Parisiennes habillées en algériennes (Le Harem), 1872. The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo. BARCODE 26007458 (fig. O-F) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Algérienne assise, 1881. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. BARCODE 26007441 (fig. O-G) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Concert, 1918-1919. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. BARCODE 26007434 (fig. P-A) Eugène Delacroix, Les Femmes d'Alger, 1834. Musée du Louvre, Paris. BARCODE 26000459 (fig. P-B) Eugène Delacroix, Les Femmes d'Alger, 1849. Musée Fabre, Montpelier. BARCODE 26000442 ART FIG A: Henri Matisse with his model, 1928. Photograph by Man Ray. BARCODE 26007427 ART FIG B: Picasso and Jacqueline. Photograph by Edward Quinn. BARCODE 26007939 ART FIG C: Pablo Picasso and Jacqueline Roque with three paintings by Matisse, Vauvenargues, Spring 1959. BARCODE 25010459
Henri Matisse (1868-1954)

L'Odalisque, harmonie bleue

Henri Matisse (1868-1954)
L'Odalisque, harmonie bleue
signed and dated 'Henri Matisse 37' (lower right)
oil on canvas
23¾ x 19½ in. (60.3 x 49.5 cm.)
Painted in 1937
Paul Rosenberg, New York (acquired from the artist).
Private collection.
C. Zervos, ed., CAHIERS D'ART, Paris, 1937, no. 6-7 (illustrated, p. 209).
I. Grünewald, Matisse, Stockholm, 1944, p. 145.
J. Cassou, Matisse, Paris, 1947, p. 20 (illustrated in color; titled Anémones et femme, harmonie bleue).
G. Diehl, Matisse, Paris, 1952, p. 34 (illustrated; titled Femme avec anémone).
L. Delectorskaya, With apparent ease...Henri Matisse: Paintings from 1935-1939, Paris, 1988, p. 31 (illustrated in color, p. 215; dated 26-27 January 1937).
G.-P. and M. Dauberville, Matisse, Paris, 1995, vol. II, p. 1360, no. 746 (illustrated; titled Odalisque en gris aux anémones).
Paris and London, Paul Rosenberg & Co., Oeuvres récentes de Henri Matisse, June-July 1937, no. 5 (illustrated, pl. 1; titled Odalisque bleue aux anémones).
Paris, Palais des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Salon d'Automne, September-October 1945, no. 13 (titled Odalisque et anémones, harmonie en bleu).


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