Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this drawing.
During Matisse's early Nice period, he focused principally on the female figure, depicting women as odalisques: dressed in oriental costume or in various stages of undress-- either standing, seated or reclining-- in a luxurious, exotic interior. These women were immortalized in oils infused with southern light, bright colors and decorative patterning, or in ink drawings set in a harem interior. Throughout his career, Matisse sculpted three versions of the reclining nude, beginning in 1907. In 1927, his interest in the subject resurged after a twenty year hiatus. Not content with the articulation and balance of mass achieved in his 1907 Nu couché I Matisse took up his knife again to re-examine and perfect the undertaking begun two decades earlier.
In his sculpture Nu couché II of 1927, Matisse inverted the position of the nude, and flattened and solidified her body. The upper left arm is barely distinguished from the torso, and the right hand melts into the head, emphasizing the solid materiality of the bronze. The figure looks straight ahead, and her hair has been removed, making the form more abstract. Albert E. Elsen speculates, "Was it to give himself a fresh start, literally a new perspective on an old problem? Was it to accommodate the tendency to read laterally from left to right so that the head and raised elbow would form the climactic rather than initial elements?" (A. E. Elsen, Sculpture of Henri Matisse, New York, 1972, p. 155-5).
Nu couché III of 1929 pushes certain changes even further, particularly the flatness of the body. However, Matisse reintroduces certain formal elements from Nu couché I--the figure again looks to the side, over her body instead of straight forward. She has been given back her hair, and the arms are shortened. The present lot is most likely related to Nu couché III of 1929 (see fig.1 and fig. 2). It illustrates the formal alterations the artist employed in his latest sculpture as he strived to perfect one of the most monumental subjects of his oeuvre.
The severe angularity and strong charcoal lines of Grand nu link it to the hard, straight cuts of a knife and the 3-dimensionality best achieved in sculpture. The model's body, which Matisse would typically draw in free, undulanting lines highlighting her soft, feminine curves, is here extremely sharpened and contorted. The figure's hip juts up, and is leveled off by a straight line as opposed to a natural curve. The line from her hip falls slowly to her waist, where it then snaps back up in another straight line towards her raised arm. Most notably, her face is depicted almost entirely in hard edges, a sharp line over her eyes showing a heavy brow and a violent slash across the side of her face denoting the cheekbone. Matisse exploits the medium of charcoal as if it were a sculptor's knife, slashing across the paper; this faceting and geometric rendering further recalls the Cubist work of his contemporaries decades earlier.
The straight lines of the drawing are echoed in Nu couché III. In the sculpture the figure's body is flattened. Much emphasis is placed upon the generous curve of the stomach, which is also given extensive treatment in the drawing. The stomach appears distended in both mediums; it is depicted by two folds of flesh which are extended in the double line of the legs, stressing the horizontal pose of the body, and bringing it closer to the ground, making it recline even further. These latest reclining nudes of 1929--the present work and the sculpture--are formally distorted yet highly sensual. The figure becomes more assertive and confident, displaying her body and sexuality more boldly in 1929 through her upturned hip, deep reclining position, and the haughty gaze over her figure.
(fig. 1) Photograph of Matisse modeling Nu couché III, Nice, 1929.
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Nu couché III, 1929.