Georges Matisse has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Painted on the Côte d’Azur, Jeune fille assise, robe jaune depicts Henriette Darricarrère, the model who more than any other fueled Matisse’s evolution into the modernist heir par excellence to the Orientalist tradition. A dancer with some knowledge of painting and—like Matisse and his son Pierre—an accomplished amateur on the violin, Henriette had caught the artist’s eye while she was working as a film extra in the Studios de la Victorine, recently opened on the western edge of Nice. “Henriette’s poise and fluidity, her regular features and oval face, her air of being at ease in her body, added up to a kind of physical perfection,” Hilary Spurling has noted (Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice, 1916-1930, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1986, pp. 241-242). She began to pose for Matisse during the fall of 1920 and soon proved more reliable than the lovely but moody Antoinette Arnoud, who had been modeling for him since 1918. Antoinette became pregnant in late 1920 and last sat for Matisse the following April; Henriette would remain the artist’s principal muse until 1927, when she married and called an end to their extraordinary partnership.
Since 1917, Matisse had been spending increasingly long periods in Nice each year, returning home to Issy-les-Moulineaux principally for the summer months. His decision to come to Nice was a necessary step for his own peace of mind, and fortunately proved to be a boon to his career as well: “Yes, I had to catch my breath, to relax and forget my worries, far from Paris” (quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse: A Retrospective, New York, 1988, p. 230). At first, the artist was an itinerant sojourner on the Côte d’Azur, living and working in a succession of small hotel rooms. By 1921, however, he was increasingly certain that Nice, with its all-pervasive luminosity, held the key to the new artistic synthesis that he sought. Upon returning south that fall, he rented a third-floor apartment at 1, place Charles Félix, high on a hill in the old town. The flat had a pleasant living space tucked in the rear and a pair of working rooms in the front, facing south over the Baie des Anges. “Matisse’s status was modifying itself to that of a resident,” Jack Cowart has observed. “The taking of the place Charles Félix apartment was a major step in personal, physical, and creative attachment that would bind the artist to Nice and the Côte d’Azur until his death thirty-three years later” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1986, pp. 29-30).
The new apartment provided Matisse with the space he required to create elaborate settings for his models, giving rise to the Orientalist fantasies that became the primary theme in his painting through the end of the decade. During his first four seasons at Nice, at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage and the Méditerranée, Matisse had painted his models amidst the real-life accoutrements of those rooms, before windows looking onto the palm-lined boardwalk and the sea. Now, he closed off the outside world, putting to use his extensive repertoire of fabrics, wall-hangings, and screens—“my working library”—to invent a wholly alternative reality, heavy with the atmosphere of the seraglio. “Matisse’s apartment opened out on canvas,” Spurling has written, “expanding or contracting as if by magic, like theatrical or cinematic space. In it he could create color and light effects that correspond less to anything in front of him than to an invisible synthesis in his mind’s eye” (op. cit., p. 24).
Jeune fille assise, robe jaune was painted in this apartment. Henriette sits in front of the now instantly recognizable fireplace and North African Haiti, which feature in several of Matisse’s paintings from this period, including Deux femmes dans un intérieur mauresque at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (fig. 1). The scene is composed of the warm hues which are indicative of the artist’s Nice period, pierced by the bold red of Henriette’s lips and the turquoise bow in her hair. Her gaze is steady and forthright, confronting the viewer with an appearance that is at once luxuriantly sensual and calmly authoritative.
Matisse’s treatment owes a debt to Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who he had visited at the elder artist’s home in nearby Cagnes-sur-Mer at the end of 1917. Renoir's example inspired Matisse to take a more classical and realistic approach to painting, while loosening up his brushwork in an airier, Impressionist manner, as seen in the present work. A classicizing tendency was very popular at that time, as many artists turned away from the radical experimentation of the pre-war period to more conservative styles that looked to the past. Pablo Picasso had already developed a neo-classical style in his figure painting, while retaining his synthetic cubist approach for still-life painting. Around 1920, Picasso also became attracted to Renoir's late work, which was well-represented in the inventory of his new dealer, Paul Rosenberg. Paul Cézanne had been the acknowledged progenitor of pre-war avant-garde painting; now Renoir, who died in 1919, pointed the way to a more relaxed and hedonistic manner in painting, at a time when a war-weary nation was eager to leave its recent trials behind, and to enjoy once again its customary peacetime pursuits and pleasures.
Matisse sent Jeune fille assise, robe jaune shortly after its completion in February 1922 to Bernheim-Jeune in Paris, as he had renewed a contractual agreement with the dealers two years earlier, which required the artist to turn over all but four paintings per year. Bernheim-Jeune found a buyer for the canvas within a month. Twenty years later, the painting made its way to America, where it was purchased by the philanthropist and collector Caroline Mormon Fesler, who gifted the work upon her death in 1961 to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where it has remained until today.