Modeled in 1927, Nu couché II is the second sculpture in Matisse’s series of three figures posed as a recumbent odalisque, which he created at the beginning and the end of a period spanning two decades. This classic pose made its first appearance in a painting, from the peak moment of the artist’s Fauve period, the arcadian fable Le bonheur de vivre, 1905-1906 (The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia); there are two reclining female nudes at the heart of this composition, one seen in a front view, the other from behind. In the following year Matisse created the subversively modeled Nu couché I (Aurore) (Duthuit, no. 30), while at the same time he painted Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra, initiating an ongoing dialogue between sculpture and painting that would repeatedly energize the progress of his work and guide the evolving direction of his art.
Nu couché II aptly marked the tenth anniversary of Matisse’s residence in Nice, during which the odalisque had dominated his oeuvre. This languorous reverie of voluptuous feminine sensuality, set amid sumptuous surroundings, had been the idée fixe to which he returned in canvas after canvas. Viewed frontally, Nu couché II displays the arabesque pose and flowing lines that were essential to Matisse’s conception of the odalisque. The back of the figure, however, is marked with wedge cuts and slicings that constructively emphasize the curvature of the spine and the ball-like positioning of the buttocks. Matisse carried this idea even further in Nu couché III, 1929 (Duthuit, no. 71), which completed his triad of reclining figures. There he introduced form-defining cuts into the abdomen, and even eliminated the knob-like breasts, orienting the figure more closely toward abstraction.
Concurrent with both reclining nudes of the late 1920s is Grand nu assis (Duthuit, no. 64), the larger figure that Matisse worked on between 1922 and 1929, a magisterial conception which has been acknowledged as the artist’s masterpiece of this decade in any and all media. Nu couché II emerges as an essential linchpin among these sculptures, and especially in terms of how they relate to the artist’s odalisque paintings–Janus-like, this figure reflects on the decade that has passed, while at the same time looking forward to the shape of works to come during the 1930s.
“I took up clay in order to rest from painting, in which I had done absolutely everything I could for the moment,” Matisse explained to Pierre Courthion in 1941. “It was to order my sensations, to seek a method that completely suited me. When I had found it in sculpture, I used it in painting” (S. Guilbaut, ed., Chatting with Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview, Los Angeles, 2013, pp. 84-85). Such was the situation in the late 1920s, when Matisse suddenly experienced the unsettling feeling of finding himself blocked in his ability to paint. He turned to print-making and sculpture instead. Henriette Darricarrère, his favorite model, had departed in late 1927 for a career in films, but for the next two years he continued to work on several projects for which she had already posed, the Grand nu assis, the large head Henriette III (Duthuit, no. 75), and finally, Nu couché III. He completed these sculptures in 1929, before traveling to Paris to escape the summer heat in Nice. There, in his old studio at Issy-le-Moulineaux, he resumed work on the monumental Nu de dos, 4e état (Back IV), bringing it to a conclusion around that time or in early 1930 (Duthuit, no. 76; sold, Christie’s, New York, 3 November 2010, lot 65). An impasse may have beset his painting, but Matisse was nonetheless making strong progress with his sculpture.
Matisse had executed Nu couche I in 1907 on a thick slab base. In the two reclining figures of 1927 and 1929 he reversed the direction of the odalisque’s pose and chose to discard the base. Albert Elsen suggested that Matisse took these steps “to give himself a fresh start, a new perspective on an old problem,” and noted the observations of the British sculptor William Tucker: “It was in the reclining figure that Matisse found the most satisfying solution; the reclining figure need not support itself by any but the most rudimentary anatomical structure. The recumbent posture he developed has no dominant front or back... In all, the release from anatomical structural problems allows Matisse to invent, to use shape expressively in a new synthesis of the parts of the body” (op. cit., 1972, pp. 155-157).
There is a marvelous photograph of Matisse modeling the clay figure of a reclining nude during the late 1920s, illustrated here. Isabelle Monod-Fontaine believed this work to be Nu couché II and ascribed the photograph to 1927 (cover, exh. cat., op. cit., 1984). Elsen, having examined another photograph taken at the same time, identified this sculpture as Nu couché III and dated the photograph 1929 (op. cit., 1972, p.158). Oliver Shell has alternatively proposed that the work in question is actually a transitional version between the two reclining figures, seen in progress. He has noted that “the head and neck correspond to the later version while the breasts and most of the body appear closer to its predecessor. We know that on some occasions Matisse made piece molds off wet clay models. The advantage of such a method was that he could continue to work the still extant clay model after it had been cast and to transform it–in essence getting two or more sculptures from a single modeling campaign... These two works represent sequential stages, at least conceptually, of a single meditation, and perhaps of a single material process” (D. Kosinski, J.M. Fisher and S. Nash, Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, exh. cat., Baltimore Museum of Art, 2007, pp. 226-227).
Matisse’s painting during this time had come to an absolute halt. To compound his frustration at the easel, his doctor diagnosed acute neuritis in both arms–especially his right, in which he held his paintbrush–and ordered him to rest. After gathering in his vintage harvest of sculptures, Matisse sailed from France in late February 1930, and after crossing America, travelled halfway around the world to experience the light in the tropics, in Tahiti. Following his return to Nice, he painted in 1931-1933 the Dance murals for The Barnes Foundation. It was not until late 1933 and early 1934 that he finally resumed easel painting on a regular basis. In 1935 he painted Grand nu couché (Nu rose), his masterwork of the Thirties. He translated to this painting the freely intuitive, fluid sense of form that he had earlier imparted to Nu couché II and Nu couché III, now effectively imbuing the arching, serpentine arabesques of the reclining nude in his painting with a consummately simple and flexible plasticity, departing from the more naturalistic treatment he had accorded his odalisques during the previous decade. From his sculpture Matisse had come up with the solution for his painting, a process that allowed him–as he stated above–to order his sensations and find the method that completely suited him.
Matisse modeling a clay reclining figure in his Nice studio, 1927-1929. Photograph by Marc Lenoir. The Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, The Art Institute of Chicago.
[fig. A] Henri Matisse, Nu couché I (Aurore), 1907. Sold, Christie’s, New York, 9 November 1999, lot 504.
[fig. B] Henri Matisse, Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra, 1907. The Cone Collection; Baltimore Museum of Art.
[fig. C] Henri Matisse, Nu couché III, 1929. The Cone Collection, Baltimore Museum of Art.
(fig. D) Henri Matisse, Grand nu couché (Nu rose), 1935. The Cone Collection, Baltimore Museum of Art.