Georges Matisse has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Suffused in a soft, enveloping light, Femme en blanc debout devant une glace dates from Henri Matisse's very first years in Nice. Painted during the artist's second season in the fashionable Riviera resort in the winter of 1918 and spring of 1919, this work belongs to the period when Matisse first began to explore a completely new direction in his art; one that attempted to incorporate all the discoveries of his earlier years into a new and complete painterly form. A closely related drawing, which features a similarly attired female figure seated in front of the ornate armoire, is in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris.
‘Ah! Nice is a beautiful place!’, Matisse wrote to Charles Camoin in May 1918. ‘What a gentle and soft light in spite of its brightness!’ (Matisse, quoted in J. Cowart, Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice, 1916-1939, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1986, p. 23). Seeking to escape the cold winter in wartime Paris, Matisse decided to travel south at the end of 1917, arriving in Nice on Christmas Day. The seemingly interminable inclement weather that he found there almost forced him to pack up and leave, but on the morning that he was due to depart the sun finally appeared, and so, as he later recalled, ‘I decided not to leave Nice and have stayed there practically the rest of my life’ (Matisse, quoted in S. Neilsen Blum, Henri Matisse: Rooms with a View, London, 2010, p. 96). In Nice, Matisse found an almost paradisiacal world of warmth, luminous light and rich colour; these qualities gradually filling his painting of this pivotal period with a novel sense of ease and relaxation. Living in a series of hotels situated directly on the sea front – rooms permeated throughout with this radiant, Mediterranean light – Matisse allowed the ambience of his surroundings to slowly redefine the nature of his art over the course of the 1920s.
Femme en blanc debout devant une glace was likely painted in Matisse’s pink-tiled room at the fashionable Hôtel de la Méditerranée et de la Côte d’Azur, into which Matisse moved for his second stay in Nice from November of 1918 through the early summer of 1919. With its French doors opening onto a balustraded balcony and the blue Baie des Anges stretching beyond, this hotel was, the artist later fondly recalled, 'an old and good hotel, of course. And what pretty Italian-style ceilings! What tiling!... I stayed there four years [sic] for the pleasure of painting nudes and figures in an old rococo sitting room. Do you remember the light we had through the shutters? It came from below as from theatre footlights. Everything was fake, absurd, amazing delicious' (Matisse, quoted in J. Cowart, op. cit., 1986, p. 24).
It was perhaps the 'delicious' fakeness of the Hôtel Méditeranée that was the greatest influence on the nature of Matisse's work over the years that followed, for an ambiguous play between artifice and reality becomes one of the mainstays of his painting at this time. Mixing decorative, artificial and real elements with the essentially abstract nature of painting itself, Matisse created a new and unique style of 'true painting'. In these works, interior, exterior and reflected light, colour and space combine with the elaborate, staged and exotic states of dress and undress of his models to generate something entirely new. Openly demonstrative of its own painted nature, this is a world in which the way the paint is applied – its colour, brushstroke, direction, size and linear quality – becomes an integral and expressive part of the structure and compositional logic of the whole. Openly showing the artifice and even abstraction of a painted depiction or representation of reality, every aspect of Matisse's work becomes a pictorial game. Throughout the 1920s, the set-up of his interiors grew into an increasingly exotic, intense and visually complex space as Matisse ‘Orientalised’ his life, acquiring an ever-greater number of elaborate textiles and furnishings. It was however, a decorative and visual game between reality and artifice that he first started to play with in his studio and living quarters at the Hôtel Méditerranée in early 1919.
Matisse set up the conditions for this kind of painting by posing a model around the room, playing an intimate and decorative game between her and the surroundings. In the winter of 1918 and 1919, Matisse had met the nineteen-year old Antoinette Arnoud, described by Hilary Spurling as ‘pale, slender and supple with a quintessentially urban, indoor chic and the kind of responsive intelligence Matisse required at this point from a model’ (H. Spurling, Matisse the Master, vol. 2, London, 2005, p. 223). The protagonist of his art for much of the next two years, Arnoud posed regularly for Matisse, appearing in numerous attires, as well as extravagant hats decorated with elaborate confections made by the artist himself. Antoinette is pictured in what seems to be the same, flower covered straw hat as the present work in another painting of the same time, Femme au chapeau fleuri (Dauberville, no. 286), and likewise seems to clutch it in her lap in Femme au chapeau (Dauberville, no. 284). As his paintings show, Matisse began to set up mock scenarios by dressing Antoinette up, setting her on or in front of the balcony and playing with the changes in the light conditions and reflections in the mirror, sometimes even including his reflected image, caught in the act of painting the picture. He also included other contemporaneous paintings hanging on the walls of his scenes; in the present work, a floral still-life adorns the scene, perhaps L’encrier, les marguerites (Dauberville, no. 271), which was painted at around the same time.
In this soft and almost pastel coloured painting – the palette that defines this early Nice period – Matisse has positioned his model in front of a mirrored armoire and dressed her elaborately in a hat and white dress. Standing looking out at the light pouring in from the balcony, the woman in this painting, likely Antoinette, with her delicate skin tones and pastel coloured attire is shown as if she too is a decorative part of the surroundings. The decorous and decorative nature of her addition to the scene is reinforced by her reflection in the mirror – another picture within a picture – that seems to suggest the multiple layers of decoration and reality that Matisse was gently beginning to explore in his Nice paintings. Drenched in sunlight, and pictorially composed in such a way that each element combines to create a joyous painterly construction that suggests reality without every resorting to illusionism, Femme en blanc debout devant une glace introduces the new direction that Matisse's art would take between 1919 and 1930.