Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
With a symphonic combination of rich, radiant colour, luxurious pattern and gentle, undulating line, Henri Matisse’s Jeune fille aux anemones sur fond violet is one of a series of dazzlingly coloured, light-filled interior scenes that the artist painted in the early 1940s whilst living in Vence in the South of France. After a period of illness and convalescence, with these paintings Matisse brought his lifelong preoccupations with colour and line to a triumphant dialogue, creating works that some consider the painterly culmination of his career. Painted in 1944, in the midst of this joyous artistic renewal, Jeune fille aux anémones sur fond violet brings together some of the most iconic motifs of Matisse’s oeuvre: the female figure, flowers and richly patterned textiles. Depicting a young artist, Annelies Nelck, this work is the first of three portraits that features this model. Of these three works, Jeune fille aux anémones sur fond violet is the only one to remain in private hands; the other two reside in the Musée Matisse, Nice and the Honolulu Museum of Art, Hawaii.
Matisse painted Jeune fille aux anémones sur fond violet in the idyllic, flower-filled oasis that was his hillside home, the villa Le Rêve, in Vence. After the outbreak of the Second World War, the artist had chosen to remain in his beloved Nice, turning down offers to aid him to flee the country. In the spring of 1943, however, with the threat of aerial bombardment and invasion looming, Matisse decided to move from the coast and relocate inland to Vence, a small, picturesque town overlooking the azure Mediterranean sea beyond. Together with his loyal and steadfast studio assistant, secretary, muse and model, Lydia Delectorskaya, he moved into villa Le Rêve, which was transformed into a peaceful sanctum for the artist. Surrounded by a verdant garden, the house was quickly filled with Matisse’s favourite objects. Flowers and plants, brightly coloured fabrics, objects from his travels and his art works transformed the villa into an exotic realm; as one visitor remarked, ‘he reconstructed, in his villa Le Rêve, this Matisse atmosphere which he needs in order to survive’ (M. Bouvier, ‘Interview with Marguette Bouvier’, 1944, in J. Flam, Matisse on Art, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1995, p. 152).
Although the war made its presence constantly felt, Matisse’s new home was a world away from this terrifying reality, and this is reflected in the work he created here. Filled with bold, harmonious colour, Jeune fille aux anémones sur fond violet conjures an atmosphere far removed from the angst of the times. Against a soft, mauve background, a young girl sits, clothed in an ornate Romanian blouse. She is surrounded, almost engulfed, by two large vases of flowers; yellow tulips soar to the top of the canvas, while the meandering stalks of the anemones proudly parade their vividly coloured petals. A mood of calm radiates from this dreamlike scene, immersing the viewer in a blissful haze of colour and pattern.
The model in Jeune fille aux anémones sur fond violet, Annelies Nelck, had quite literally walked into Matisse’s life in February 1944. An artist herself, Nelck, who was born in Vence to Dutch parents, had travelled to Amsterdam in 1938 to study at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. In 1943, Nelck discovered she was pregnant. Managing to escape Occupied Holland she was forced to leave behind the father of her child, who was a member of the Dutch Resistance. On her return to France, her father suggested that she show her work to Matisse. Armed with her drawings she knocked on the artist’s door and, without a second of doubt, asked the great artist to look at them. Completely taken aback by the girl’s unabashed directness, Matisse was lost for words. ‘I was stunned by such audacity’, he recalled (Matisse, quoted in ibid., p.153). Nelck persisted, however, asking if he might know any potential buyers for her work. ‘She was so insistent that I kept the drawings to show them. The next day I gave her an address where she sold several of them. Since, she has come to pose for me. Each day she works near my windows and I give her advice’ (ibid., p. 153). Nelck quickly became a central part of Matisse’s life. Not only did Matisse agree to teach her, but he also found buyers for her work, gave her employment as a model and offered her crucial support, both financial and personal. Over a period of six years she grew extremely close not only to the artist, but to Lydia too. ‘I was a child, in a catastrophic state when I came to them’, Nelck recalled, ‘and instead of throwing me out, they gave me, both in their different ways, the most precious thing they had: their time and their attention’ (H. Spurling, Matisse the Master, A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, London, 2005, p. 433).
Just a few weeks after their first meeting, Nelck began to pose for Matisse. He first made a series of charcoal drawings of the young blonde artist, before posing her at a table surrounded by flowers. Jeune fille aux anémones sur fond violet was, according to Nelck herself, the very first painting of her. ‘I was asked to wear a Romanian blouse’, she recalled, ‘the same one worn by so many models before me, and around my neck a necklace of golden ivy leaves. I felt like a chèvre endimanchée, but my curiosity soon made me forget this initial awkwardness. On the table in front of me, a vase of yellow tulips…I could feel that the empty canvas was providing great anxiety which he was going to have to overcome’ (A. Nelck, L’Olivier du Rêve, Matisse à Vence, Témoignage, Nice, 1998, p. 29). The red and orange patterned blouse that Nelck wore for the painting was a garment similar to those that had featured in a number of landmark works of the preceding decade. Matisse had amassed an extensive and adored collection of lavish dresses and ornate costumes, often featuring their intricate designs and vibrant colours in his paintings. At the beginning of the 1940s he had written to a friend describing the purchase of a blouse that could perhaps be the one seen in the present work: ‘I found a beautiful Romanian blouse, of ancient design, with old ochre stiches, that must have belonged to a princess and I’d like many more of them, for which I’d willingly exchange a fine drawing’ (Matisse, quoted in Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams, exh. cat., London, 2005, p. 187).
In January 1941, Matisse had undergone serious, life-saving surgery, after which he had endured a long and often painful convalescence. Despite heavy odds and a number of complications, Matisse made a miraculous recovery and seized the second life he felt he had been granted with both hands. ‘Truly, I’m not joking when I thank my lucky stars for the awful operation I had’, he wrote to fellow artist Albert Marquet in 1942, ‘it has made me young again and philosophical which means that I don’t want to fritter away the new lease on life I’ve been given. I had prepared for my departure from this life so well that it’s as if I’m in another, a second life’ (letter to Marquet, quoted in P. Schneider, Matisse, London, 1984, p. 738). To his son, Pierre, he wrote, ‘I have come back from the dead. It changes everything. Time present and time future are an unexpected bonus’ (Matisse, quoted in J. Russell, Matisse Father & Son, New York, 1999, p. 221).
Renewed and revivified, when he was able to return to easel painting in 1942, Matisse embarked on a new artistic campaign. He returned to one of the most central themes of his career: women set amidst interiors. In the mid to late 1930s, Matisse had painted a series of boldly coloured and highly patterned works that featured women adorned in ornate costumes reclining in luxuriant interior settings. Colour, pattern and decoration reach their apex in these rich, sumptuous paintings in which the female model becomes almost entirely incorporated into her surroundings. Gradually however this elaborate decorative style gave way to an increasingly simplified mode of pictorial construction, and when Matisse returned to painting in the early 1940s, he continued to reduce his compositions to their most essential components, leaving only what he called, ‘the colour of ideas’ (Matisse, quoted in Spurling, op. cit., p. 411).
In 1941, Matisse told Pierre Bonnard that he was, ‘paralyzed by something conventional that keeps me from expressing myself in painting as I would like…a drawing by a colourist is not a painting. He must produce an equivalent in colour. And that is what I’m not managing to attain’ (Matisse, ‘On Transformations’, 1942, in Flam, op. cit., p. 143). It was the liberation Matisse experienced following his brush with death that allowed him to finally achieve this desire. ‘Everything I did before this illness, before this operation, gives the feeling of too much effort’, Matisse explained, ‘before this, I always lived with my belt tightened. Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated’ (Matisse, quoted in Flam, op. cit., p. 6). Freeing himself from the burden of his own expectation, Matisse began to paint with a new speed and spontaneity, relaxing the relationship between colour and line. Colour was, as in the artist’s revolutionary fauvist paintings of the beginning of the century, emancipated, used instinctively yet with the utmost sensitivity. Dominated by the brilliant tones of purple and yellow, Jeune fille aux anémones sur fond violet embodies this artistic shift. Balancing in a harmonious equilibrium, these complementary colours dominate the painting, creating a dazzling chromatic harmony that both enlivens and unifies the composition as a whole.
Nelck’s recollections attest to the artist’s complete immersion in colour when he painted this work; she explained, ‘it was visible that colour established a new and powerful relationship: the composition and balance of the painting and his expression, rendered him entirely subordinate. After a light preparatory drawing, with a touch of black diluted in a mixture of oil and turpentine, he began to carefully spread colour across the canvas. Some tones he copied directly from reality, serving to firmly anchor the painting: the face, the tulips and the ruffled blouse. He placed colours which would enhance each other side by side, until the canvas was covered’ (Nelck, op. cit., p. 29). She also described how the artist had first painted the background a different colour and, after this layer had dried, painted over it with soft purple. This process lends the dominant purple a translucency that engulfs the viewer, absorbing them into a harmonious mirage of colour. Reducing compositional detail to its simplest components and giving himself over entirely to the poetic power of colour, in these blissful interior scenes of the 1940s, Matisse was finally able to marry two opposing pictorial elements in one deeply harmonious union. ‘There is only one thing that counts in the long run’, Matisse concluded at this time, ‘you have to abandon yourself to your work. You have to give yourself over entirely, without thoughts, especially without afterthoughts. Only then does your work contain you totally’ (Matisse, quoted in Flam, op. cit., p. 256).