Wanda Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
With its lively surface and richly varied palette, Femme au fauteuil rouge, kimono marks Matisse's passage from the somber austerity of his work done during the First World War to a more sensuous and realistic style in the early 1920s. In late October 1917, Matisse, averse to the prospect of spending another cold and dismal winter in wartime Paris, headed south to the Mediterranean coast, stopping at Marseille and nearby L'Estaque, where he and Albert Marquet had painted two years before. In mid-December he headed on to Nice, which he had not previously visited. Matisse later recounted, "I left L'Estaque because of the wind, and I had caught bronchitis there. I came to Nice to cure it, and it rained for a month. Finally I decided to leave. The next day the mistral chased the clouds away and it was beautiful. I decided not to leave Nice, and have stayed there practically the rest of my life" (quoted in J. Cowart, exh. cat. op. cit., p. 19).
Matisse returned to Nice each winter, spending longer periods of time there with each visit. He liked the Mediterranean light in winter--although it was less dazzling than in the summer, it created a more subtle array of colors. He wrote to the painter Charles Camoin in May 1918, "A little while ago I took a nap underneath an olive tree and what I saw was of a color and softness of relationships that was truly moving. It seems as though it is a paradise that one does not have the right to analyze, however, one is a painter. Ah! Nice is a beautiful place! What a gentle and soft light in spite of its brightness!" (quoted in ibid., p. 23).
During his first stay in Nice, Matisse rented rooms in The Hôtel Beau-Rivage, and after it was requisitioned for Allied troops, he moved to the Villa des Alliés. When he returned for his second stay in the fall of 1918, he took up residence at the modestly scaled Hôtel Méditerranée et de la Côte d'Azur, located on the seaside Promenade des Anglais. He returned there for the next several years, taking different rooms each time. He lived and worked there alone for most of his annual sojourns, while his wife and family remained at their home in Issy-sur-Molineaux, near Paris.
On the last day of 1917, Matisse's friend George Besson took him to visit Pierre-Auguste Renoir at his home in nearby Cagnes-sur-Mer. Although Renoir had suffered from crippling arthritis for many years, he still painted every day except Sunday. Matisse admired the old painter's fortitude and unshakable dedication to his art. Matisse brought some of his recent paintings for the master's critique on a second visit in January 1918. They became good friends and Matisse returned twice again later in the year. "He must have been as impressed by Renoir's unabashed enthusiasm for female beauty as by his lively curiosity and courage. Matisse was not yet known as a painter of sensual nudes; he had not been primarily a painter of nudes at all, and most of those he had done were not notably erotic. His libidinous impulses had been largely sublimated in his painting, embedded in the pictorial language rather than overtly expressed in the subject. Renoir gave him the impetus to make new contact with own sensuality. After twenty years of bourgeois family life, decades of being 'the doctor' and 'professor,' Matisse in his late forties seems to have wanted to learn how to be young again" (J. Flam, Matisse: The Man and his Art 1869-1918, Ithaca, New York, 1986, p. 473).
Renoir's example inspired Matisse to take a more classical and realistic approach to painting, while loosening up his brushwork in an airier, Impressionist manner. A classicizing tendency was very popular at that time, as many artists turned away from the radical experimentation of the pre-war period to more conservative styles that looked to the past. Picasso had already developed a neo-classical style in his figure painting, while retaining his synthetic cubist approach for still-life painting. Around 1920, Picasso also became attracted to Renoir's late work, which was well-represented in the inventory of his new dealer, Paul Rosenberg. Cézanne had been the acknowledged progenitor of pre-war avant-garde painting; now Renoir, who died in 1919, pointed the way to a more relaxed and hedonistic manner in painting, at a time when a war-weary nation was eager to leave its recent trials behind, and to enjoy once again its customary peacetime pursuits and pleasures.
Matisse now worked extensively from the model. His wife and other members of his family had often posed for him, but now that he was spending long periods of time apart from them, he had to hire models locally. Moreover, with his family not present, he could now employ nude or partially nude models in interior settings, creating scenarios that were more overtly tinged with erotic fantasy. The present painting shows his young model clothed in a sheer embroidered wrap, with her skirt suggestively pulled down. The wrap is possibly of Algerian origin; a similar garment appears in the Algerian pictures of Eugène Delacroix and Renoir (fig. 1), and was presumably available in markets in Nice or Marseille. It presages the more exotic costumes in which Matisse would clothe his models for odalisque paintings the following year. The languorous quality in the Nice nudes and interiors owed much to the Orientalist tradition in French painting since the mid-19th century. Matisse visited Morocco twice in 1912-1913--he still held vivid memories of these trips, which encouraged him to cultivate a fantasy world in the studio that little resembled the real world outside his rooms. Here he could privately savor and express a discreetly seductive eroticism, and at the same time tap into the art of past masters whom he admired and sought to emulate.
The Bernheim-Jeune archive photograph of Femme au fauteuil rouge, kimono is dated May 1920. Matisse probably completed the painting after he returned to Nice in February, having spent several weeks in London, where he had been working on costume and set designs for the Ballets Russes production of Stravinsky's Le chant de rossignol. The artist again changed rooms in the Hôtel Mediterranée. The model here is Antoinette Arnoux, who began to pose for Matisse in the winter of 1918-1919, when she was eighteen years old. She was the sitter for many of the early Nice figure paintings, and served as the model for the exquisite drawings showing a young woman in a plumed hat (fig. 2) that Matisse included in Cinquante Dessins, a collection of recent drawings that his dealer Bernheim-Jeune published in September 1920, on the occasion of the artist's fiftieth birthday. Antoinette likewise appears in another painting of the same year, Le petit déjeuner (fig. 3) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She wore her hair in long tresses in the drawings, but then bobbed her hair in the latest style of the day. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., described Antoinette as being "pudgily adolescent, provincial and demure...a cold, aquiline beauty with shadowed eyes...alert and elegant...languorous and seductive" (in Matisse: His Art and his Public, New York, London, 1975, p. 206).
Gaston Bernheim de Villiers (1870-1953), who with his brother Josse owned the prestigious Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris, retained this painting for his personal collection, until he sold it to Sam Salz, one of the leading dealers of modern French paintings in New York, after the Second World War.
(fig. 1) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Parisian women in Algerian costume (The Harem), 1872. The National Museum of Western Art, Matsukata Collection, Tokyo.
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, The Plumed Hat, 1919. The Cone Collection, The Baltimore Museum of Art.
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, Le petit déjeuner, 1920. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Samuel S. White III and Vera White Collection.