Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
A simple, everyday household feature that might best serve as a metaphor for the advent of modernism--the momentous transformation that took place in the visual arts during the first decade of the 20th century--is probably the window. The view through a window is a perfect analogy for the art of painting, particularly as Matisse painted the window of his room in Collioure during the Fauve summer of 1905 (fig. 1). With shutters opened and thrown back, the dazzling light of a new day streams in and sets the room ablaze with color, as fresh sea breezes aerate damp and musty interior spaces. The window in this iconic painting represents the passage to a new way of painting, in which color became form.
"A window appears in nearly one hundred of Henri Matisse's paintings," Shirley Neilsen Blum has observed. "Although fully aware of its long and rich history in art, to Matisse it represented neither a gateway to the spectral or of the spiritual. Nor did he view it as barrier between the domestic and outside world... For him, the window linked the exterior to the interior. Discarding its religious and literary associations he drew attention to the richness of this deceptively simple subject. He created endless variations on the window's assorted movable elements--shutters, curtains and windowpanes" (Henri Matisse: Rooms with a View, New York, 2010, p. 11).
Since 1917 it had become Matisse's custom to spend time in Nice for the purpose of painting during the winter months; he extended his stays there with each successive visit. In addition to appreciating the far more amenable winter climate there than in Paris, he liked the Mediterranean light during that time of year, for although it was less dazzling than in the summer, it revealed a more subtle array of colors. In February 1920 he arrived in Nice a third time, for a stay which lasted through May, taking rooms--as he had done the previous year--in the Hôtel de la Méditerranée et de la Côte d'Azur at 25, promenade des Anglais, overlooking the beach and bay beyond.
There was, unfortunately, no adjoining balcony outside his new room such as that which he had put to good use the previous season (fig. 2), but by way of compensation the windows had low-set decorative grilles which would well serve as horizontal pictorial elements to anchor and stabilize the vertical aspect of his interior compositions. He painted the window of his room if it were a picture within a picture; the grille, window jambs, and shutter frames provided an internal grid which he employed to recreate on the canvas the relationships he observed in real space. Matisse painted the present interior during this stay. When he returned to Nice for his fourth sojourn at the end of September, he was again able to rent a room with a balcony at the Hôtel de la Mediterranée, which he used until the spring of 1921.
"Windows are fixed to Matisse's place in the modern canon," Blum has written. "Throughout his long career, in each new phase of his art and with every change of residence, Matisse reinvented this theme... After 1917 tall French windows with long shutters take over many of the paintings in Nice [fig. 3]. Most importantly, windows let in the brilliant light Matisse found so compelling in the South of France. Shuttered, curtained, half-closed or unencumbered, they serve as background or as subject. These windows afforded an opportunity to explore the properties of light, both outside and in. Self-absorbed figures expressionless and at leisure stand or sit before these grand windows, which reveal calm vistas of beach and sea" (ibid., pp. 11-12).
Matisse had already embarked on his celebrated series of odalisques, nude or semi-clothed lounging women in the orientalist manner which Ingres and Delacroix had initiated in French painting nearly a century earlier. For Matisse these subjects were the "bounty of a happy nostalgia, a lovely vivid dream, and the almost ecstatic, enchanted days and nights of the Moroccan climate," as he later recounted, referring to his trips to North Africa in 1912-1913 (quoted in J. Flam, ed., op. cit., p. 230). He also painted ordinary domestic scenes, showing women in everyday modern dress quietly going about their lives. The present painting describes a scene that straddles these two types of interior subjects. Here a young woman is about remove her silken wrap and sit down in a chair before the window. In a teasingly mysterious scenario, she is perhaps fresh from her bath, or more likely a model about to begin a session posing for the painter, as we may discern from related paintings (e.g., fig. 4). In the seascape framed within the window, sailboats ply the Mediterranean waters of the Baie des Anges. In these spaces filled with light, Matisse has suggested the tenor of everyday living, creating a visual poetry of delicate stillness and quietude, captured in casual, momentary vignettes that a novelist or story writer might visualize in the mind's eye.
The poet and playwright Charles Vildrac visited Matisse around the time he painted Femme au peine espagnol. "I knew most of the paintings that he had painted there these last years," he recounted. (Vildrac's wife became the first owner of this painting, acquiring it from Matisse's dealer Bernheim-Jeune within a few months after Matisse painted it during February-May 1920.) "Therefore I found the high window and its curtains, the red rug and its decoration, the 'toad'armchair in which Matisse often placed the nude model... Without a doubt, I found myself in the room 'of the Matisse paintings'... This room wasn't as big as I thought... Besides, I had to realize that the painter had given it a fresh and entirely submissive soul...a soul which in reality it did not have: it was certainly a pleasant hotel room, but with the soul of a hotel room... Didn't Matisse paint this window, these curtains saturated with light, this red rug, this furniture, the same day as some magician had created this room with the stroke of a wand, while each object...offered up its grace to the light? You understand, the magician had been Matisse himself" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1986, p. 26).
Vildrac wrote the preface for the book Cinquante dessins par Henri Matisse, which Bernheim-Jeune published in August 1920 to celebrate the artist's fiftieth birthday, and was one of a group of writers who contributed essays to the book Henri Matisse, illustrated with reproductions of his work, which Bernheim-Jeune also brought out that year.
The decision to come to Nice proved to be a boon to Matisse's career. Each spring Matisse sent back to Paris a shipment of his recent odalisques and interior scenes for exhibition at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, where they sold quickly and well. Some critics balked, however, at these paintings, which seemed to them like warmed-over Impressionism, and they suspected that this one-time avant-garde pioneer may have renounced the cause of modernism. Matisse was not, however, marking time in the sun. "These years are in fact an extremely active and a totally surprising moment in Matisse's journey," Dominique Fourcade has written. "From 1904 to 1916 Matisse elaborated an architectonics of color, whereas from 1917 to 1930 he moves to an architectonics of light... Each parcel of the painting's surface is a site of color... and each site of color becomes a source of light that, combined with all other sources of light, creates a wholeness of light and space" (ibid., pp. 47, 52 and 55).
The model in this painting is Antoinette Arnoux, who began to sit for Matisse during his previous stay in 1918-1919. She posed for the famous paintings and drawings Matisse had created showing a young woman wearing elaborately plumed hats. The winter of 1919-1920 was the last season she worked for Matisse. When the artist returned in September for his next painting campaign, he engaged as his primary model Henriette Darricarrère, who devoted the next seven years to working with him.
"[Matissse] had an intimate and loving relation to every room in which he painted," Blum has written, "and derived inspiration from constantly studying its parts" (op. cit., p. 15). The room, it walls and its windows were not boundaries or a place of limitation and confinement. In Matisse's paintings rooms are places filled with light, whose source is the window, whose panes facilitate the passage of light, in a way akin to the human eye itself. "Matisse's windows look out on subjects that speak to the beauty of creation... Although they repeatedly join two worlds, those of man and nature, Matisse insisted that the exterior and the interior--the room and its view--made up a single unified whole" (ibid., p. 13).
The Art Institute of Chicago acquired Matisse's Femme auprès de la fenêtre in 1921 as its first painting under the Winterbotham Plan, an arrangement under which the Chicago businessman and collector Joseph Winterbotham made a gift of $50,000 to the Institute as principal for investment, with the interest to be applied expressly toward the eventual acquisition of thirty-five European paintings, most of which were, by choice, works by 20th century contemporaries. Femme auprès de la fenêtre was the Institute's first acquisition of a painting by Matisse, and one the first of this artist's works to enter the collection of any American museum. Under the Winterbotham Plan, any work from the collection might eventually be sold to contribute toward the acquisition of a new work. It is for reason that the Art Institute de-accessioned Femme auprès de la fenêtre in 1958).
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, La fenêtre ouverte, Collioure, summer 1905. The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. BARCODE: 28862482
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Grand intérieur, Nice, late 1918-spring 1919. The Art Institute of Chicago. BARCODE: 28862468
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, Femme assise devant des volets fermés, Nice, 1919. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library. BARCODE: 28862475
(fig. 4) Henri Matisse, Nu au peigne espagnol, assis devant une fenêtre à voilages, Nice, 1920. The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection. BARCODE: 28862451