Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Painted in 1922, the statuesque figure at the heart of Henri Matisse’s Nu sur fond rouge stands elegantly poised before an array of sumptuous red fabrics, her lithe form bathed in the rose-tinted light of their reflections as she gazes unflinchingly at the viewer. A sensuous depiction of the artist’s favourite model of the period, Henriette Darricarrère, this painting embodies many of the key elements which marked Matisse’s explorations of the odalisque theme during the early years of the 1920s. The artist had first met Henriette while she was working as a film extra in the newly opened Studios de la Victorine on the western outskirts of Nice. Captivated by her beauty and athletic physique he invited her to model for him, and later expressed his admiration for her inherent poise, gracefulness and elegance, even complimenting the manner in which her head sat upon her neck. Trained as a dancer, Henriette’s muscular body offered a sharp contrast to the soft curves of Matisse’s previous model, Antoinette Arnoud, with the artist particularly fascinated by the manner in which her shapely, well-defined form captured the fall of light like a sculpture. Taking the position of the artist’s studio assistant, Henriette swiftly came to be considered part of the family, with his wife and daughter both developing a close friendship with the young model during the seven years she worked for Matisse. It was with Henriette that the artist began to fully explore the potentials of the odalisque theme in his art, expanding upon the traditional conception of the subject and translating it into a distinctly modern subject.
The odalisque, or concubine, was one of the most prevalent motifs of nineteenth-century Orientalism, a sensual figure plucked from a European fantasy of life in the East. Providing a glimpse into the forbidden space of the harem, these figures were often shown semi-nude, dressed in exotic costumes made from diaphanous materials, their bodies adorned with sumptuous gold jewellery and glittering stones. Towards the end of the First World War, Matisse embarked upon a series of paintings inspired by this theme, in which he explored and played with the stereotypical depiction of the odalisque. For Matisse, these figures were an artistic device, a route through which he could explore the female body objectively, proclaiming: ‘I do odalisques in order to do nudes…’ (Matisse, quoted in A. Dumas, exh. cat., Matisse and the Model, New York, 2011, p. 24). The artist included elaborate costumes and accessories in his depictions, draping his models in silk pantaloons, ethereal blouses and brightly coloured headdresses, directing his women to adopt languorous poses that evoked life in an otherworldly seraglio. Henriette fell easily into these parts, relaxing naturally as she reclined seductively on a couch, or drew one leg up towards her body whilst sitting in an armchair, both arms raised above her head. Over the course of their working collaboration, Matisse created multiple variations of these motifs and poses, subtly adjusting Henriette’s form or position from painting to painting, capturing the long graceful lines of her body in a variety of scenarios, and against an array of backdrops.
In Nu sur fond rouge Matisse abandons the costumes and accessories usually associated with the odalisque. In fact, apart from the two bejewelled bangles Henriette wears on her arms and the small green turban discarded on the trunk behind her, there is little to suggest that she is from North Africa or the Middle East. Instead, through the frank confidence of her body language, up-to-date hairstyle and make-up, she embodies the contemporary French woman. She stands before the viewer, unashamed of her nudity, her body imbued with a strength, power and composure at odds with the submissive passivity of traditional depictions of the odalisque. In many ways, her blatant modernity intensifies the erotic charge of the scene, casting her not as an exotic, otherworldly figure of fantasy, but a real-life woman, unafraid to make direct eye contact with the viewer as they scrutinise her naked body. It is only through the ornate decorations that surround her, the exotic wall hangings and decorations, that Matisse invokes the spirit of the traditional harem. This rich environment provides a glimpse into the versatile, adaptable theatrical space that the artist constructed in his studio in Nice, an environment of vibrating patterns and colours which often rivalled the seductive female models for the viewer’s attention.
When Matisse first arrived in Nice on Christmas Day 1917, he had originally intended to stay for just a few days, but soon found himself enchanted by the unique quality of light and colour that sparkled across the town. By 1922 the artist was firmly settled in the town and, following four years stationed in various modest seafront hotels, had taken the definitive step of finding a more permanent space to occupy, renting a two-room apartment on the third floor of 1 Place Charles Félix, an imposing building in the heart of the old town which had formerly housed the local senate. In this space, Matisse quickly set about creating an environment that he could manipulate at will, hanging screens and backdrops, rugs and drapery around the rooms, to construct a dramatic, interchangeable space in which to work. He commissioned a local carpenter to create a folding screen out of a Middle-Eastern curtain printed with round-headed latticed arches, and also installed hinged curtain rods on the walls which could be easily moved to condense and alter spaces on a whim. Visitors to the studio on Place Charles Félix were often dazzled by the optical richness of this modest space, the overlapping and interchanging walls of fabric lending the studio a stage-like, fairy tale atmosphere, not dissimilar from the artificial environments of the town’s burgeoning film industry.
The central protagonists in this space were the artist’s vast collection of diverse textiles, which he had begun collecting in his days as a poor art student, scraping together tiny sums he could barely afford to purchase frayed scraps of fabric from Parisian flea markets and street vendors. By the time of his arrival in Nice, Matisse’s collection had grown dramatically to include Persian carpets, Arab embroideries, North African wall-hangings, cushions, curtains, costumes, patterned screens and backcloths, of a vast array of colours, motifs and materials. Several pieces were acquired during Matisse’s trips abroad, sourced from the bustling souks of Morocco, the bazaars of Algeria, and the vibrant markets of Tahiti and Granada. Others were salvaged from the rubbish heaps of neighbouring houses and hotels, their sumptuous patterns catching the artist’s eye as he passed by. The majority, however, were purchased directly from a Parisian merchant of Lebanese origin by the name of Ibrahim, who kept a small boutique on the capital’s Rue Royale. Referred to by the artist as his ‘working library,’ these fabrics acted as an important source of inspiration for Matisse, stimulating his creativity and transporting his imagination to exotic realms. Portions of the collection accompanied the artist whenever he switched studios between Nice and Paris, whilst new pieces were constantly being added to the treasury. Contemporary photographs of his studio offer a glimpse of the vast array of fabrics the artist draped around the space, their striking motifs and vibrant colours overlapping and converging, mixing with the vivid designs of the existing wallpaper to create a kaleidoscopic effect of colour, ornament and pattern.
In Nu sur fond rouge, a large red tapestry richly decorated with arches and floral designs dominates the background of the composition. This haiti, a common Islamic textile used to adorn buildings and tents for weddings and other festive occasions, featured subtle piercings in the fabric which imitated the intricately chiselled screens or moucharabiehs typically found in domestic interiors. Its distinctive pattern and vibrant colour appeared in several other compositions of the period, including Odalisque with a screen (1923), and Pianist and chequer players (1924), where its abstract motif serves as a backdrop to an ordinary, domestic scene, devoid of the exotic, sensual connotations seen in the present work. As with most of Matisse’s fabrics, the reappearance of the haiti across multiple compositions represented the artist’s belief that objects could take on a new life when placed in different situations. ‘The object is an actor,’ the artist explained. ‘A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures…’ (Matisse, quoted in E. McBreen, ‘Matisse at Work’, in E. McBreen & H. Burnham, eds., exh. cat., Matisse in the Studio, Boston, 2017, p. 17). In Nu sur fond rouge, the fabric appears to engulf Henriette, expanding across the wall and filling the entire frame of the composition. While several other patterns make an appearance in the lower register of the painting, it is this scarlet wall-hanging which draws the eye, its intricate floral patterns and rhythmic repetition of archways framing and echoing Henriette’s nude form. The whole scene is united by the colour red, from the crimson of the rug underneath Henriette’s feet, to the deep ruby shade of the painted trunk behind her, and the bright dash of lipstick on her mouth. This creates an intriguing, harmonising interplay of colour that bathes the model in a rich, sensual light, and accentuates the erotic atmosphere of the scene.
The flowing, pulsating energy of the haiti’s design, meanwhile, lends the composition a visual dynamism that highlights the intense stillness of Henriette’s pose. Indeed, the sumptuous wall hanging rivals her nude body for our attention, continually distracting the eye from her form as its abstract shapes and patterns swirl around her. This competition between Henriette and her surroundings is the direct result of the complex, ever-changing environment of the artist’s studio, which Matisse dressed and redesigned for each composition, tweaking its configuration in order to challenge our understandings of the space in which his models posed. In this way, Matisse was able to reinterpret the Orientalist traditions of the Nineteenth Century into his own distinct visual language, emphasising not only the theatrical nature of his studio, but also the artificiality of the subject itself. As he explained: ‘Look closely at the Odalisques: the sun floods them with its triumphant brightness, taking hold of colours and forms. Now the oriental décor of the interiors, the array of hangings and rugs, the rich costumes, the sensuality of the heavy, drowsy bodies, the blissful torpor in the eyes lying in wait for pleasure, all this splendid display of a siesta elevated to the maximum intensity of arabesque and colour should not delude us… In this atmosphere of languid relaxation, under the torpor of the sun washing over people and objects, there is a greater tension brewing, a tension of a specifically pictorial order, a tension that comes from the interplay and interrelationship of elements’ (Matisse, quoted in P. Schneider, Matisse, London, 1984, p. 506). In Nu sur fond rouge, it is through this confluence of patterns and colour, the juxtaposition of the abstract and the figurative, the contemporary and the timeless, that Matisse captivates his viewers, transporting them to an otherworldly place of theatrical, sumptuous, sensual delights.