Italy entered the First World War, allied to Great Britain and France, in May 1915. While artists and progressive and left-leaning intellectuals in other countries were wary of the conflict and its aims, and either accepted service out of duty or sought to avoid it altogether, many of the Italian Futurists declared themselves in favor of the war, seeing it as a means of achieving the completion of the Risorgimento, the drive for national reunification. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the chief theorist and author of the Futurist manifestos, was the most bellicose, and clamored for early intervention. Most of the Futurists patriotically joined up and went off to war, and like their fellow artists in other countries, suffered terrible losses in the trenches.
Severini lived the previous several years in Paris where he was the chief contact between the Futurists and the French avant-garde. In 1913 he married Jeanne Fort, the daughter of Paul Fort, a poet and review editor who championed progressive painters. By late 1914, Parisian galleries had closed down and food shortages had developed. Suffering from malnutrition and tuberculosis, Severini left Paris in early 1915 to recuperate in Barcelona; Max Jacob, Pablo Picasso and others contributed money to defray his expenses. While in Barcelona, he heard the news of Italy's declaration of war. Unfit for service, he returned to Paris, and painted a series of works on the theme of war, including his famous Train blindé en action (The Armored Train), 1915 (Fonti, no. 242; Private Collection, New York). Confronted with the appalling cost of the war in lives and wasted creative talent, Severini, Carlo Carrà and Ardengo Soffici began to question the militant tenets of Futurism, and the concept of an ideologically motivated avant-garde. Severini had watched from his home near the railway trains filled with wounded troops returning from the front. The need for a new humanism became apparent, and Severini came to understand painting as a form of expression in and of itself, existing within the rational and tangible limits of the medium, and stripped of extraneous agendas and intellectual dogmatism.
Prior to the war, relations between the Cubists and the Futurists had been tenuous and problematic. Each group had influenced the other but nevertheless remained antithetical on certain issues. Both groups shared an interest in subject matter drawn from modern life, and in varying degrees introduced the concept of simultaneity, that is, the layering of multiple experiences of reality within the same composition. The cubists favored the perceptual analysis of static subjects, and disliked the Futurist's preference for objects in motion, which they felt the Italians treated illusionistically and with a tendency to superficial, subjective effect, whereas cubism was a reality in itself, expressed within the pure plastic means of painting.
With the demise of the Futurist movement, Severini became increasingly interested in the latest developments in the cubism of Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris, which had entered what is now referred to as its "synthetic" phase. Severini worked in cubist assemblage, which led to increasing flatness into his compositions. He treated the classic cubist subjects, still-life and the figure, and with the "rediscovery of motifs, the ex-Futurist was able to repropose the static subject as a growth of virtual forms and conceptual forms, and to refine colour relationships. Severini continued to stand out for his personal concept of 'contrast' and his limpid, intellectual use of colour" (P. Hulten, Futurismo & Futurismi, exh. cat., Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1986, p. 573).
In July 1916 Severini contributed paintings to the exhibition organized by the poet and critic André Salmon at designer Paul Poiret's Salon d'Antin. Intended to demonstrate the solidarity of the Paris avant-garde with the allied war effort since many Frenchman still considered modernism to be a conspiracy concocted by foreign agents, the exhibition included paintings by Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger, Giorgio de Chirio, Moïse Kisling and Kees van Dongen among others. Picasso allowed his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon to be shown in public for the first time. This gathering was a rare occasion in which the diverse styles of the avant-garde rubbed shoulders without the partisan rancor that had characterized the pre-war period. By this time ideas were increasingly exchanged and absorbed on all sides, with many artists striving for a new synthesis in painting, which would soon become apparent as tendency toward classicism.
The present painting is notable for the richness and subtlety of its color contrasts, and the carefully poised layering of the flat color planes. It is a rare instance of Severini's use of an oval-shaped canvas, and he had probably seen Picasso's and Braque's compositions in this format. To create textural variations in the flatly painted forms, Severini scraped areas of drying paint and elsewhere used a monochrome pointillism, a technique that Picasso had already borrowed from him in his synthetic cubist pictures.
Severini first arrived in Paris in 1906, and by 1917 had known Matisse for almost a decade. The latter's Portrait d'Yvonne Landsberg, 1914 (coll. The Philadelphia Museum of Art) showed Futurist influence in its wave-like forms emanating from the sitter. In still-life and figure paintings done in 1915, Matisse introduced cubist elements which he called "the methods of modern construction." Both Severini and Matisse admired each other as colorists. Severini praised Matisse's work in his theoretical text La peinture d'avant-garde, written in 1917. It is in light of these shared interests that Severini dedicated the present painting to Matisse in 1917 and presented it to him as a gift.