This work is sold with a photo-certificate from Mme Wanda de
Henri Matisse painted Nu à la chaise longue in 1923, and within months of its completion, it had entered the collection of the industrialist Henri Canonne, a mark of its quality. Canonne's collection included an incredible array of Impressionist masterpieces including seventeen of Claude Monet's Nymphéas, as well as pictures by Bonnard, Cézanne, Pissarro, Renoir, Signac, Sisley and Vuillard, amongst others; many of these now grace the walls of prominent museums. In the 1930 tome dedicated to that collection by the art critic Arsène Alexandre, Femme nue couchée was picked out for particular praise among Matisse's works because of the 'highly seductive suppleness' of the subject and the fact that it shows this scene in full light rather than exploring any facile contrasts; as Alexandre concluded, 'there is here a double discovery, of drawing, and of colour' (A. Alexandre, op. cit., 1930, p. 123).
That combination of drawing and colour is particularly evident in the body of the model, which sprawls across the expanse of the canvas. Matisse has perfectly conjured the sense of the model's curves, her volume. The looping undulations with which her form has been delineated reveal Matisse's masterful draughtsmanship, and this is particularly evident in the legs, where the outlines are visible. The flesh-tones of this painting dominate the composition and progress across its breadth with a lilting rhythm that fills it with a musicality, and this is accentuated by the deliberate contrast between the continuous flesh and the backdrop, with its vertical divisions separating the swirling garlands of its richly-decorated motif. That patterning serves both to heighten the atmosphere of opulence with which Matisse's studies of nudes and Odalisques are so often suffused and also to emphasise the abstract quality of the composition, a prominent and much-lauded characteristic of his paintings of this period. This abstraction is in turn heightened by Matisse's delicate, harmonious treatment of the light and the colours in Nu à la chaise longue: this is an exquisitely subtle painting which perfectly evokes the realm of pleasure that was so important to Matisse while also demonstrating his exploration of pictorial and plastic forms in two dimensions.
Henri Canonne had purchased Nu à la chaise longue from Matisse's dealers, Bernheim-Jeune, at the beginning of 1924; Bernheim-Jeune in turn had acquired it at the end of 1923, implying that the painting may have dated from the later part of that year. Certainly, in the deliberately muted light in this painting, one may see the Winter light of the South of France, where Matisse was staying at that time (he had also spent a portion of 1923 at his house in Issy-les-Moulineaux in the outskirts of Paris). By this time, he was renting a large apartment on the place Charles-Félix in Nice, which would be his base for almost two decades. As soon as he had moved in, he had sent to Issy for trunkloads of props, costumes and backdrops, and many of these would feature again and again in his works, augmented by the various items he acquired from his great source for such objects, Ibrahim (see H. Spurling, Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, London, 2005). This allowed Matisse to arrange his studio like a theatrical set, changing its appearance all the time: the screen in Nu à la chaise longue, for instance, can be seen in Nu couché, painted the following year and now in the Barnes Collection, Merion, in which the nude model reclines in a similar pose to that shown here, as well as in L'odalisque à la culotte rouge in the Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. That work, also from 1924, shows the model clothed and surrounded by various exotic objects that reinforce the notion that in Nu à la chaise longue Matisse was partly using this backdrop to evoke the East.
With her dark hair, her sultry features, her oval face, her grace and her evident comfort in this pose, the model in Nu à la chaise longue appears to be Henriette Darricarrère. Those qualities made Henriette a perfect subject for Matisse, and she featured regularly in his paintings from 1920 to 1927. Henriette showed a great understanding of Matisse's own artistic quest, and was indeed a talented painter in her own right, to the extent that the master came to tutor her. At the same time, it was pertinent that she had first come to Matisse's attention when she was working on a film set; her knack for role-playing made her ideal for the artist's invocations of the world of Odalisques, of oriental luxury and sensuality. While there are no accoutrements of the harem in Nu à la chaise longue, the atmosphere of languid luxury conjured by the richly-ornamented backdrop and by the model herself nonetheless show that this work is closely related to those visions of exotic and even erotic splendour.
The poses that Matisse used in his pictures, such as that of the reclining figure in Nu à la chaise longue, often recall the Odalisques and nudes of other Western masters such as Ingres, Manet and Courbet, as well as the older precedents of Titian and Velasquez. Matisse even owned a fantastically foreshortened vision of a naked, sprawling, sleeping blonde by Courbet. Again and again during the 1920s Matisse returned to variations upon these poses, as is clear from looking at his Nu drapé étendu in the Musée de l'Orangerie, where the model is propped up slightly with her arm over her head, and Odalisque allongée, painted a few years later yet reprising a similar attitude. Looking at Nu à la chaise longue and the postures in these other works, it becomes clear too that another of his influences during this period was Michelangelo: he was inspired by the Renaissance master's treatment of plastic forms. It is telling that for some time during 1922, Matisse had spent his mornings painting Henriette and his afternoons drawing Michelangelo's Night, a sculpture that decorates the tomb of Giuliano de Medici in Florence and which features a similarly reclining figure, explaining at one point: 'This drawing marks real progress in my study of form, and I hope that tomorrow my painting will feel the benefit' (Matisse, quoted in ibid., p. 248). In a sense, Matisse was very knowingly adding to a canon of Western art, acknowledging his own place within this esteemed brotherhood. However, he was aware that he was actively adding to this legacy, that in terms of content and style alike, his paintings were very much a product of his own age.
This turn towards his historical precedents came at the same time that his friend and rival Pablo Picasso was turning to Neo-Classicism, looking to Ingres and the School of Fontainebleau for inspiration. In this light, both Picasso and Matisse appear to have been reacting in part to the so-called Rappel à l'ordre that swept through so much of the avant-garde in the wake of the chaos and horrors of the First World War. Many artists were now seeking order, reason, beauty and harmony, hoping that these qualities would come to filter through into the world at large. For Picasso and Matisse, though, this Return to Order was merely a backdrop against which they abandoned the rigours and restraints of the styles through which they had made some of their most important discoveries, applying the fruits of their bold artistic experimentation more generally. While Picasso discarded his Cubist apparatus in favour of his Ingresque figures, Matisse headed South. Discussing the atmosphere of sensuality and pleasure that sings through his paintings from the beginning of his time based in the South of France such as Nu à la chaise longue, he declared: 'Yes, I needed to have a respite, to let myself go and relax, to forget all worries far from Paris. The Odalisques were the abundant fruits at once of a light-hearted nostalgia, of a beautiful, living dream, and of something that I experienced almost ecstatically day and night, under the enchantment of that climate' (Matisse, quoted in P. Schneider, Matisse, London, 1984, p. 496).
Crucially, in these new paintings Matisse indulged, 'A desire for an abstraction of colours and rich, warm, ample forms where the supremacy of the arabesque would be assured' (Matisse, quoted in ibid., p. 496). These pictures provided Matisse with a joyous excuse to put into effect his concepts of form, of the abstraction of the picture surface, of its exploitation through patterns and of colour harmony, as is clear in looking at Nu à la chaise longue. For Roger Fry, who explained that Matisse's wider fame rested largely on the success of his paintings from the first half of the 1920s, it was precisely the ambidextrous nature of these paintings from Nice that was so virtuoso: Matisse was creating lyrical images such as Nu à la chaise longue which also continued his discoveries from the previous decades, taking up their gauntlet in a new manner. The pictures leap off the canvas in terms of readability, allowing them to serve as simple nudes, visions of a life of luxury; yet the colours have been carefully arranged in order to convey so much more: 'He has an almost uncanny gift of situating each colour in its place in the scheme viewed as a vision of plastic reality, as a world of volumes in a space' (R. Fry, Henri Matisse, London, 1935, p. 22). Discussing another of Matisse's pictures in terms equally apt to Nu à la chaise longue, he explained:
'One can see the figure in all its relief with all the free play of direction of the limbs, its volume and mass, but at the very same moment we see it as joining in the swaying, dance-like movement of all these flat linear patterns. By the magic of an intensely coherent style our familiar every day world, the world where the model sat on the carpet, in front of Matisse's easel, has been broken to pieces as though reflected in a broken mirror and then put together again into a far more coherent unity in which all the visual values are mysteriously changed in which plastic forms can be read as pattern and apparently flat patterns are read as diversely inclined planes' (ibid., p. 21).