From 1917 to 1932, Henri Matisse made annual trips to the south of France. These winter sojourns, commencing when the artist was forty-eight years old, "may have begun as a symbolic return to the adventures, challenges, and yearnings of his earlier years" (J. Cowart, Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice, 1916-1930, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1986, p. 26).
By this time, Matisse was already considered to be one of the two modern masters. During these years, often referred to as his niçoise period, his work underwent great change. The most obvious transformation during this time was the reappearance of the figure in his painting. While Matisse's work would have developed regardless of his physical location, the environment he discovered in Nice influenced his work to a greater extent than any other location at any period in his career. He rejoiced in the light of southern France, introducing a broader range of soft tonalities to depict "harmonious, light-filled, and often profusely decorated interiors, with languorous and seductive models" (J. Elderfield, Henri Matisse: Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 14). During a 1943 interview with the French poet Louis Aragon, Matisse expounded on his attachment to the region:
Nice, why Nice? In my work, I have tried to create a translucent setting for the mind. I have found the necessary limpidity in several places around the world: New York, the South Pacific, and Nice... The painters over in New York say, How can anyone paint here, with this zinc-colored sky? But in fact it's wonderful! Everything becomes clear, translucent, exact, limpid. Nice, in this sense, has helped me. (Quoted in J. Flam, Matisse: A Retrospective, New York, 1988, pp. 166-167)
During his time in Nice, much of Matisse's inspiration sprang from the actual rooms in which he worked. He painted Femme assise au livre ouvert in the winter of 1918-1919 in his room at the Hôtel Méditerranée et la Côte d'Azur, located at 25, Promenade des Anglais (fig. 1). He first stayed at the Hôtel Méditerranée in November of 1918 and returned to the familiar location for several years, each time taking a different room. While a significant improvement on his former lodgings at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage, the Hôtel Méditerranée was by no means extravagant and sat unobtrusively on the promenade, several blocks west of the Jetée Promenade. The hotel did, however, provide a fertile, expansive environment for his artistic experimentation and development. Matisse would later say of the hotel:
An old and good hotel, of course! And what pretty Italian-style ceilings! What tiling! It was wrong to demolish the building. I stayed there four years [sic] for the pleasure of painting nudes and figures in an old rococo sitting room. Do you remember the light we had through the shutters? It came from below as if from theater footlights. Everything was fake, absurd, amazing, delicious. (Quoted in Cowart, op. cit., p. 24)
The model in Femme assise au livre ouvert is eighteen-year-old Antoinette Arnoux, Matisse's favorite and most celebrated sitter during his early years in Nice. In the winter of 1918-1919, he executed a series of paintings with Antoinette reading leisurely. This variation of the subject, with Antoinette looking up at the viewer, distracted from her book, hints at the artist's changing relationship with his models. In his early work, Matisse used family members as subjects. With the use of hired models, "complicated plays of imagery, subtle eroticism, and autobiographical content increased" (ibid., p. 26). Matisse posed Antoinette in a variety of costumes and settings. Whether wearing a tasseled shawl, a voluminous striped robe, a ruffled blouse, or simply draped with a sheer cloth, she was usually portrayed as a soft, vulnerable young woman. In the present picture, Antoinette is dressed in a flamboyant, flower-print dress, one she is seen wearing in numerous works during the winter of 1918-1919, an example of which is Femme au chapeau fleuri (fig. 2).
Matisse's first room at the Hôtel Méditerranée, the setting for Femme assise au livre ouvert, had large windows overlooking the Baie des Anges. The double French doors with shutters opening onto a balcony provided an abundance of light, the key element in Matisse's work in Nice. Located in the center of the first or second floor of the hotel, the room was decorated in a nineteenth-century Italianate style, with ornate floral wallpaper, a geometrically tiled floor and partially transparent curtains. An oval mirror and a small, ordinary table were among the furnishings:
The table, with its oval mirror and embroidered skirt, became an important compositional element for Matisse, and he began a faithful, almost poetic relationship with it. The table became the room's inhabitant, with or without the model, artist, or family member. In a manner consistent with his lifelong furnishing of paintings with personal decorative articles, Matisse seized this mirror and table and included it in his repertory of forms from 1918 until he left the Hôtel Méditerranée et la Côte d'Azur at the end of the spring in 1921 (ibid., p. 24).
The paintings executed at the Hôtel Méditerranée exude a luxuriant, almost sensuous tranquility. Unlike Matisse's later work in the mid-1920s, which is characterized by crisp outlines and intense light, Femme assise au livre ouvert appears soft, calm and intimate. Charles Vildrac's eyewitness account of the room highlights Matisse's ability to transform this simple setting by enlarging its dimensions and presence:
I went to see Matisse once in that room in Nice which looks out on the promenade and on the sea and which he has left since. I knew most of the paintings that he painted there these last years. Without a doubt, I found myself in the room, "of the Matisse paintings,"
This room wasn't as big as I thought: I had gotten the impression from certain canvases that one could walk in it freely, with great strides, dance in it with ease; actually, it was all lengthwise, quite cluttered and the window took up the better part of its width. Besides, I had to realize that the painter had given it a fresh and entirely submissive soul, like flowers are to the variations of the sky, a soul which in reality it did not have; it was certainly a pleasant hotel room, but with the soul of a hotel room. (Quoted in ibid., p. 26)
The use of Antoinette as a model, the layout of the room and the particular furnishings link the present picture to other works executed during this particular trip to Nice, such as Grand intérieur, Nice, currently in the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago (fig. 3). The furnishings of the hotel room--the previously discussed tiled floor, table and oval mirror--are present in Grand intérieur, Nice and La liseuse distraite. In addition, several other common compositional elements are employed in the two paintings, including the open book, the large cushioned yellow chair, the glass vase, and the flowers.
Matisse's work from this period was well received by critics and collectors of the time. His primary dealer, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, staged annual exhibitions until 1926, providing the public with an overview of his most recent work. The pictures sold well and quickly found their way into important collections. Patrons included members of the Paris art world, international collectors and agents, such as Alphonse Kann, Albert Barnes, Claribel Cone and Paul Reinhardt. In the introduction to the catalogue for the 1918 Matisse-Picasso exhibition at the Galerie Paul Guillaume in Paris, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire eloquently described Matisse's genius:
Every painting, every drawing by Henri Matisse possesses a certain virtue that one cannot always define but that always strikes one as an authentic force. It is the artist's strength that he does not attempt to oppose this force but allows it to act as it will.
It is not mere skill that has made this art simpler and this work more intelligible. Rather, as the beauty of light has gradually become merged with the power of the artist's instinct--an instinct in which he trusts implicitly--all the obstacles to this union have disappeared, the way memories sometimes melt into the mists of the past. (Quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., p. 169)
(fig. 1) Man Ray, Henri Matisse, circa 1930.
(fig. 2) Postcard of the Hôtel Méditerranée et la Côte d'Azur, early 1900s.
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, Femme au chapeau fleuri, 1919.
(fig. 4) Henri Matisse, Grand intérieur, Nice, 1919.
The Art Institute of Chicago.