Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
In November 1916, with the Great War in its third harrowing year and Matisse’s art coming as close to pure abstraction as it ever would, a new model–a young Italian woman–entered the artist’s life who would utterly transform his painting. Her name was Lorette (or Laurette, or perhaps Loreta), and during the next six or seven months, he painted nobody and nothing else. “No other model ever absorbed him so exclusively and at this degree of intensity either before or afterward,” Hilary Spurling has written (Matisse: In Search of True Painting, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2012, p. 101). Although Matisse’s inaugural painting of Lorette, the Guggenheim Italienne, is among the most austere and reductive of his wartime works, the stream of portraits that followed–some fifty in all–usher in a wholly new sensuality and freedom, establishing the direction that his art would take for well over a decade.
“When you have achieved what you want in a certain area,” Matisse explained, “when you have exploited the possibilities that lie in one direction, you must, when the time comes, change course, search for something new” (quoted in Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 2010, p. 318).
Very little is known about this raven-haired woman whose hedonistic, Mediterranean persona so liberated and re-charged Matisse’s art. A notation in his journal suggests that the painter Georgette Sembat introduced the two, a welcome favor during wartime when models were scarce. She may have been the sister of Rosa Arpino, who had posed for Matisse in 1906. Whatever her biography, though, she possessed a theatrical gift for transformation that proved to be just the stimulus Matisse needed. He painted her in a variety of costumes and, still more striking, in a wide range of moods; from one canvas to the next, she shifts from hieratic gravity to flirtatious playfulness, from ethereal purity to Dionysian abandon. “Was Matisse’s main purpose to explore the intriguing young woman before him, aiming to plumb the depths of her being,” Jack Flam has wondered, “or to use her as a kind of actress who plays different parts in different plays, allowing him to work out some of the technical challenges presented by portraiture?” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2006, p. 14).
Matisse painted the present portrait of Lorette in early spring 1917, midway through this period of intensive exploration. Bernheim-Jeune photographed the canvas at the beginning of April and sold it just days later to Dikran Khan Kélékian, a leading collector and dealer of Islamic art whom Matisse patronized for his trove of ethnic textiles. The painting shows Lorette seated in an upright wooden chair against a jewel-like, Veronese green ground; she rests her cheek against her hand in a traditional posture of melancholy, yet fixes the viewer with a steadfast and slightly sultry gaze. She is clad in a white blouse with long, transparent sleeves, a plunging neck line, and a ruffled collar and cuffs. This is the same top that she had donned for Matisse’s very first painting of her, and it re-appears in some half-dozen other portraits plus two multi-figure studies from the spring of 1917; the only outfit that she wears more often is a green Moroccan gandoura.
“Laurette released in Matisse an observant gaiety and speedy, casual attack suppressed in years of strenuous sacrificial effort,” Spurling has written. “He painted her energetically from odd angles and in exotic outfits, but mostly he returned to her simplest pose, seating her facing him in a plain, long-sleeved top and improvising endlessly inventive rhythmic variations on the central theme of her strong features, heart-shaped face and the black ropes of her hair” (Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, New York, 2005, pp. 200-201). In the present version, her long, looping curls echo the freely handled frills of the blouse, creating a series of sinuous arabesques that contrast with the rectilinear chair back and the flat ground. Her locks fall loosely past her shoulders, enhancing the air of casual intimacy, yet structurally the bold, dark patterns of the hair provide a harmonious completion to the carefully considered decorative ensemble.
“A will to rhythmic abstraction was battling with my natural, innate desire for rich, warm, generous colors and forms,” Matisse later explained. “From this duality issued works that, overcoming my inner constraints, were realized in the union of contrasts” (quoted in J. Flam, Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, pp. 271-272).
Lorette stopped posing for Matisse during the summer of 1917, and the artist turned briefly to landscape and still-life. In December, though, he pulled up stakes and relocated from Paris to Nice, where he found a promising successor in nineteen-year-old Antoinette Arnoud; soon after, he met Henriette Darricarrère, who would sustain his odalisque fantasy into the late 1920s. Just as his paintings of Lorette acted as a bridge between his abstract wartime style and the more sensuous, theatrical paintings that he undertook at Nice, so too did they set the pattern for his successive relationships with hired models, which took on the obsessive, exhaustive intimacy of a love affair played out on canvas.
“I depend entirely on my model, whom I observe at liberty,” he declared in 1939, more than two decades after Lorette had transformed his working practice. “After a certain moment it is a kind of revelation, it is no longer me. I don’t know what I am doing, I am identified with my model” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2011, pp. 45 and 53).