Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
In late 1926 or early 1927, Matisse moved from the apartment in Nice that he had occupied for the past five years, on the third floor of a neo-classical building at 1, place Charles Félix, to a space nearly twice the size on the top story of the same address, high on a hill in the heart of the old city. Whereas the artist’s studio in the previous flat had been snug and heavily decorated, the current one was nothing short of a dramatic light chamber, with triple floor-length windows facing south over the Baie des Anges. The walls were white, amplifying the saturating light, and were embellished with an unusual device of false square tiles. It was here that Matisse painted Antique et oeillets, unexpectedly transforming a corner of his new atelier into a meditation on the history of art and the nature of art-making, rendered in a radiant harmony of cool hues.
The focal point of this elegant canvas is a plaster cast of a nude female torso from classical antiquity, most likely taken from a Roman copy, preserved in fragmentary form, after Praxiteles’s Aphrodite of Knidos from the 4th century BCE. The sculpture is positioned at an oblique angle to the picture plane, receding perspectivally into depth. Its volumetric modeling stands out in striking juxtaposition against the abstract grid of the background. Framing the central motif are two upright bands: a narrow strip of violet on the left, representing the metal window surround, and a wooden door molding on the right, awash in reflected turquoise light. Strictly aligned with the edges of the canvas, these verticals assert the materiality of the painted surface as opposed to that of the represented object. This play of volume and flatness—of artistic tradition and modernist innovation—embodies the very pictorial synthesis that Matisse sought at Nice during the 1920s.
“I first worked as an Impressionist, directly from nature; I later sought concentration and more intense expression both in line and color,” he explained, “and then, of course, I had to sacrifice other values to a certain degree, corporeality and spatial depth, the richness of detail. Now I want to combine it all” (quoted in J. Flam, Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 76).
The sculpted torso in Antique et oeillets also serves as a stand-in for the female model, taking the place of Zita, Lili, Hélène, and the other young women—ballet dancers from the Compagnie de Paris—who populated Matisse’s pictorial theater in 1928. This recourse to sculpture allowed for three-dimensionality without the destabilizing presence of the live model. “I consider I have made some progress,” Matisse explained, “when I note in my work an increasingly evident independence from the support of the model. The model is a springboard for me—it’s a door which I must break down to reach the garden in which I am alone and so happy” (quoted in Matisse: In Search of True Painting, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2012, p. 94). Here, Matisse has contrasted the blush-colored blossoms in the bouquet, which suggest the rosy hues of the absent model’s flesh, with the cool gray tones of the plaster cast, bringing together the animate and the inanimate—the present moment and the long-ancient past.
Matisse’s interest in the art of classical antiquity dates back to his student days at the Académie Julian and the studio of Gustave Moreau, when he made copious drawings from plaster casts of ancient statuary. Several of these traditional exercises are preserved, including renderings of the Capitoline Niobid and Lysippus’s Hermes Adjusting His Sandal. Matisse alluded to this practice in his 1895 painting of Moreau’s studio, which depicts a plaster cast, possibly of Polykleitos’s Doryphorus (Spear Bearer), standing behind a live model. When he set up his own art school in 1908, Matisse continued this venerable tradition, giving pride of place in the main classroom to a plaster replica of the Apollo Piombino. His student Greta Moll recalled working at length before a cast of the Borghese Gladiator, which the class purchased from the Louvre at Matisse’s instruction. A photograph of the master himself sketching a Greek kouros in the same museum in 1946 reveals that the habit of working from ancient art persisted throughout his career.
Matisse was also a zealous collector—of textiles and rugs, ceramics and glassware, African masks and small pieces of furniture. These objets d’art, which he described as his “working library”, nourished his visual vocabulary and provided him with ongoing inspiration to create. The plaster torso that appears in the present painting is one of several casts of ancient sculpture that formed part of his rich and varied collection. He owned a small-scale replica of the reclining river god Ilyssus from the west pediment of the Parthenon, which he depicted in two paintings from 1908 (see Christie’s, New York, 1 November 2011, lot 11), as well as a full-size plaster of the Borghese Ares, which appears alongside two of his own sculptures in the 1911 Atelier rose. During the years preceding the First World War, he acquired a cast of the kouros Biton from Delphi, as well as an original marble torso from the Roman period, both of which remained in his studio at his death and are housed today in the Musée Matisse in Nice.
The circumstances under which Matisse obtained the plaster in the present painting are not certain. In 1922, he asked his son Pierre to procure a cast of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave from the Louvre and to send it to him in Nice; the torso here may have been shipped from Paris too. Matisse also spent substantial time in the cast gallery of the École des Arts Décoratifs in Nice, sketching a Hellenistic Crouching Aphrodite as well as Michelangelo’s Night; the former served as the basis for his own statuette on the same theme and the latter for the Grand nu assis, one of his largest and most ambitious free-standing sculptures. It is possible that Matisse purchased the present plaster during one of these working visits, along with a second female torso that appears beside a drawing of the Crouching Aphrodite in a studio interior from 1919 (Museu de Arte de São Paulo).
The formal vitality that Matisse found in classical statuary—“full, firm as, say, an egg, and with cylindrically shaped limbs,” as he described it—influenced his own sculptural experiments throughout his career (quoted in Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, exh. cat., Dallas Museum of Art, 2007, p. 234). He first explored the expressive possibilities of the female torso, fragmented from the body as a whole, in La Vie of 1906 and Torse debout of 1909, both of which adopt postures of ecstatic abandon (Duthuit, nos. 23 and 44). In 1929, the year after he painted the present canvas, he modeled a pair of small sculptures in which the torso, the source of the body’s physical power and balance, is daringly contracted into a unitary, rounded form (Duthuit, nos. 73-74). These audacious works form a three-dimensional counterpart to Antique et oeillets, reflecting at once the modernist impulse toward the reductive and the enduring resonance of antique tradition.