Painted in 1921, Venitienne (en buste) or Ancilla illustrates the distinct stylistic shift which occurred in Henri Matisse’s art following the end of the First World War, as he left behind the sombre colours and highly angular style that had dominated his work in recent years, in order to return to a more traditionally figurative mode of representation. Speaking to the Scandinavian art historian Ragnar Hoppe in 1919, Matisse declared: ‘When you have achieved what you want in a certain area, you must, when the time comes, change course, search for something new… One must always keep one’s eye, one’s feeling, fresh…’ (quoted in J. Flam, Matisse on Art, London, 1995, p. 75). Focusing on the delicate features of a young model sporting a gold-trimmed tricorn hat, a diaphanous veil cascading from its brim over her bare shoulders, this intimate oil study captures a sense of Matisse’s renewed interest in portraiture as a vehicle for experimentation at this time, and the lasting impact the soft golden light of the South of France had on his work.
Faced with the prospect of another cold and dismal winter in wartime Paris, Matisse had decided to escape to the Côte d’Azur for a few months towards the end of 1917, arriving in Nice on the 20th of December in what was to become the first of a series of annual trips to the area. Here, Matisse was able to devote himself entirely to his craft, living an almost hermitic lifestyle, devoid of distraction, with simple meals and prolonged sessions dedicated to drawing and painting. The diffused winter light of the Mediterranean inspired a noticeable lightening of the artist’s palette, as he introduced a more subtle spectrum of colours to his work. In contrast to the often grey and variable light of the north, the artist delighted in the gentle sunlight the city enjoyed during the winter months; although it was less dazzling than in the summer, it generated an array of warm hues, casting a delicate, almost hazy, light across his subjects. Over the course of the 1920s, Matisse would return to Nice each winter, using these conditions in which to explore new, unchartered directions in his painting. For example, during his stay in 1921, Matisse wrote to his wife that he was trying to imbue his figures with a greater sense of depth and weight: ‘As for my work, there’s only one thing I can say: I’m searching for the density of things – instead of reducing what I see to a silhouette, I’m trying to convey volume and modelling’ (quoted in H. Spurling, Matisse the Master: A life of Henri Matisse, the conquest of colour, 1909 – 1954, London, 2005, p. 238).
Executed in brief, sweeping strokes of pigment, Matisse explores these formal problems in Venitienne (en buste), using the play of light and colour alone to create a sense of the physical presence of his model. Alongside this, he pays particular attention to the textures and details of her garments, most noticeably the elaborate gold detailing of the Venetian cappello she wears, revealing the growing importance of costume and textiles in his oeuvre. Indeed, the artist had begun collecting patterned fabrics and sumptuous, exotic clothing for what he would later refer to as his ‘working library,’ a cache of diverse textiles, that included Persian carpets, Arab embroideries, North African wall-hangings and patterned screens, of a vast array of colours, motifs and materials. Acting as an important source of inspiration, these fabrics were hung in different configurations around his work space, creating an ever-shifting interior that stimulated his creativity, while props and costumes transported his models to exotic realms. Though Matisse is said to have been acquired a ‘Venetian robe’ from the costumier for the Ballet Russes, Marie Muelle, around this time, the outfit in Venitienne (en buste) appears to be a have been created from a mixture of disparate elements, drawn together for the sole purpose of framing the young model’s delicate facial features.
An inscription on the reverse of the canvas, meanwhile, traces the history of this work. ‘Ancilla’, the Latin word for female servant, was added by the artist’s daughter, Marguerite, perhaps as an indication of the artist’s intended theme. According to her brother Pierre, Venitienne (en buste) remained with Marguerite Matisse for roughly a decade after its creation, before it was acquired by the esteemed Detroit-based collectors, Ralph and Mary Booth. An astute and ambitious young business man, Ralph had embarked upon a career in the media in the 1890s, soon taking charge of the Chicago Journal and the Detroit Tribune before establishing the Booth Newspaper chain of dailies in Michigan. Throughout his life Ralph harboured a great passion for art, an interest he shared with his wife Mary, and together the couple built an outstanding collection of Impressionist and Modern paintings, including works by Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Manet, and Gauguin. Alongside their collecting activities, the Booths were dedicated patrons of the arts and proved instrumental to the founding of the Detroit Institute of Art. As President of The Detroit Arts Commission, Ralph spearheaded efforts to raise money for the building’s construction as well as sourcing and acquiring significant works for the new Institute. Alongside works by the Old Masters, he encouraged important and forward thinking purchases such as Van Gogh’s Autoportrait of 1887 and Matisse’s La Fenêtre of 1916, which was the first work by Matisse to enter the collection of an American public institution. Venitienne (en buste) remained with the Booth family for over eighty years, before being purchased by the present owner.