As Matisse began to model sculptures at the turn of the 20th century, he was drawn to aspects in the work of the more progressive sculptors who were active at the time--most notably Rodin, Bourdelle and Maillol --as well as the conservative tradition of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. However, his work soon evolved in a manner unlike that of any of these sources, as he quickly moved beyond their example to realize his own distinctively expressive and personal style. Matisse had known Maillol since 1904, and had helped the older artist cast the enlarged version of his La méditerranée in 1905 (fig. 1). Some critics assumed that Maillol had guided Matisse's early efforts in sculpture, a suggestion that Matisse was quick to refute: "Maillol's sculpture and my work in that line have nothing in common. We never speak on the subject. For we couldn't understand one another. Maillol, like the ancient masters, proceeded by volume; I am concerned with arabesque like the Renaissance artists. Maillol did not like risks and I was drawn to them" (quoted in R. Escholie, Matisse se vivant, Paris 1956, pp. 163-164). Indeed, it was Matisse's willingness to take risks that inspired the individuality and adventurousness of the artist's sculpture throughout his career, and fostered the uncompromising modernism that became the hallmark of his work.
Matisse's Grand nu accroupi (Olga), modeled in 1909-1910, shares with Maillol's La méditerranée a fundamentally classical and balanced pose, which Matisse has invigorated with unexpected tensions and dynamism, and rendered in his characteristically rugged and tactile way of working with clay. Albert E. Elsen observed that "The mediterranée has fewer surprises than Matisse's form and is more predictable from successive views and in terms of the intervals between the limbs, body and base. Olga has contours made complex and vigorous, both by posture, in its dramatic twisting of the spine, and in the ungeneralized contours, which occurred because the sculptor was willing to strike an average curve to insure the untroubled swell of the thigh's volume" (in op. cit., pp. 97 and 99).
Olga evolved from a series of smaller works done in 1908, including Petit nu accroupi avec bras (Duthuit, no. 37), Petit nu avec un bras (D., no. 38), and Nu accroupi, main droite à terre (pochade) (D., no. 42). All of these sculptures have as their common source a rather ordinary photograph of two nudes (fig. 2). In 1908 Matisse had given a statement on photography for publication in Edward Steichen's magazine Camera Work, in which he said, "Photographs will always be impressive because they show us nature, and all artists will find in them a world of sensations" (quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 44). Matisse used photographs as sources for two other important sculptures executed during this period, Deux négresses, 1907 (D., no. 36), and La serpentine, 1909 (D., no. 46).
In addition to its grander scale, Olga differs from the smaller works which preceded it in the depiction of the model's head and face, which bears the features of a specific person instead of those of the anonymous model in the photograph. This person is in fact someone who had a significant impact of Matisse's life during this time. She is Olga Markusova Meerson, a Russian painter, who was 31 years old when Matisse accepted her as a student in his academy during the summer of 1908. Olga had previously studied with Kandinsky in his Phalanx School in Munich. In 1905, she accompanied Jawlensky and his companion the painter Marianne von Werefkin on a trip to Brittany, and afterwards attended the Salon d'Automne where she viewed the notorious Fauve paintings of Matisse and his colleagues. Olga remained in Paris, and supported herself by making copies of old masters in the Louvre and painting portraits, some of which were shown in the official Salon. Matisse admired her independence, rare in woman at that time, as well as her serious and articulate dedication to painting. "The aspirations of her soul are of the noblest," Matisse later wrote (quoted in H. Spurling, Matisse the Master: A life of Henri Matisse, Volume Two, New York, 2005).
Spurling has stated that "Apart from Amélie [Matisse's wife] and the occasional professional model, Olga was the only woman reckless enough to pose nude for Matisse in the years before the First World War" (ibid., p. 75). She modeled for the present sculpture in the studio Matisse built on the grounds of his home in Issy-les-Moulineaux, a suburb of Paris. Matisse also painted a portrait of Olga, clothed, during the summer of 1911, when they were in Collioure (fig. 3). In turn, Olga painted two portraits of Matisse that summer, including one that was shown at the 1911 Salon d'Automne (no longer extant), and a smaller, informal study, in which Matisse is seen lounging on a made bed, wearing the pyjamas he liked to work in, and reading a book (Private collection). Jack Flam mentioned that Matisse and Olga "had become intimately involved" (op. cit., 1986, p. 315). Spurling, however, has recounted a more ambiguous relationship. It was Olga who attempted to initiate an affair. "Olga had eyes for no one else. She threw herself at him almost from the start, according to Alice B. Toklas" (op. cit., p. 76). Matisse, however, placed his art above all. He continued to have strong feelings for Amélie and was committed to the well-being of their family. "[Olga] came as close as she ever would to happiness with him when they painted one another at Collioure. If they became lovers, it can only have been, for him at any rate, a brief and casual connection compared to the intensity of their exchange on canvas" (ibid., p. 86).
Olga had for some time been a welcome guest at Issy-les-Moulineaux. But now aware that her feelings for Matisse would come to nothing, she grew increasingly despondent. During Matisse's trip to Russia in November 1911, when he visited his patron and collector Sergei Shchukin, Olga's gloomy presence at Issy increasingly irritated Amélie. Matisse had suspected Olga of using drugs, and while in Russia he may have abetted efforts that Olga's family made to have her enter a sanatorium in Bern. When Olga learned of this, she felt Matisse had betrayed her. The end of their relationship finally came while Olga was staying at the clinic, when Amélie learned of the woman's feelings for her husband, and became upset at Matisse as well. Olga subsequently married, and lived in Munich and Berlin during the 1920s. She was Jewish; she became despondent over the rise of Nazism and she committed suicide. Spurling states that "when news reached Matisse of Olga's death, he talked to Lydia Delectorskaya [his model and studio assistant] about his grief for 'the beautiful Russian Jew' who had once been his pupil, and about the great love she bore him" (ibid., p. 76).
(fig. 1) Aristide Maillol, La méditerranée, 1905. Musée Maillol, Paris. BARCODE 25240252
(fig. 2) Photograph used by Matisse, 1908-1910. BARCODE 25240245
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, Portrait d'Olga Meerson, Collioure, 1911. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. BARCODE 25240238