A photo-certificate from Marguérite Duthuit dated Paris, 22 August 1980 accompanies this drawing.
When the Landsberg family sought out an artist in early 1914 to do a portrait of their younger daughter Yvonne, then nineteen years old, they first considered engaging Paul-César Helleu, whose society portraiture was then very fashionable. Yvonne and her brother Albert, while attending a series of lectures by philosopher Henri Bergson at the Collège de France, had become acquainted with Matthew Stewart Pritchard, an Englishman and a former director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, who was studying philosophy in Paris and had been a friend of Matisse since 1907. Pritchard urged the Landsbergs to select Matisse for their daughter's portrait, and Albert persuaded their mother to accept their preference.
Yvonne was extremely shy, but Matisse found her to be an interesting and mature young woman and did a preliminary drawing of her (current location unknown), which Pritchard extolled as being "the most beautiful contemporary drawing in the world!" (quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., p. 389). Matisse offered to undertake an oil portrait of Yvonne, stipulating that he have complete freedom in its execution, although the family was under no obligation to purchase the finished painting.
The painting required many sittings, and not wasting any opportunity while Yvonne was resting from her pose, Matisse made further drawings as well as a series of prints. During each session Matisse practically repainted the entire image, and as the portrait progressed, the sitter's figure became less naturalistic. Albert thought the finished work (see fig.) resembled a Byzantine icon.
"The great drawing of Yvonne Landsberg [the present work] resembles an early state of the painting, as documented by a recent X-ray photograph. In this tense, austere drawing, Matisse eschews the ease of the other studies for rigorous contraction of the subject into rhyming sequences of summarily modelled forms. Face, breasts and pressed-together thighs recall that 'egg-like form beautiful in volume' Matisse had told his students to look for in a particular model, back in 1908; so does the hair, which indeed 'describes a protecting curve and gives a repetition that is a completion' [Sarah Stein]. Joining these forms, the branch-like neck and arms -- one broken abruptly at the elbow and wrist, the other wrenched downwards by the sheer force of turning and pulling the charcoal back into the body -- are rigid, jolting accents, yet possessed of an eloquent beauty of their own" (J. Elderfield, The Drawings of Henri Matisse, exh. cat. op. cit., p. 63).
The pose seen in the present drawing remains visible in the painting as a form of armature. In the latter the head has assumed a mask-like aspect; even more remarkable are the arching lines that Matisse scratched into the wet paint with the wooden end of his brush, and the areas where he has additionally etched away the pigment, leaving hatched lines as if in a drawing. "The lines express expansion and becoming, and are visible manifestations of invisible forces that the artist has sensed within her and within himself. They also express the subject's femaleness, that sense of the life force that Matisse had dealt with so often and in so many ways in his representations of both plants and women. Here the woman literally throws off shoots like a plant." (J. Flam, op. cit., pp.387-388). The lines also trace a heart-shape, a motif that Matisse repeated in an ink drawing made after the painting (see Elderfield, op. cit., p. 20, fig. 20). The portrait is indeed an insightful look into the personality and aspirations of a girl on the verge of womanhood.
Yvonne's mother, although an advocate of contemporary music, would have preferred a more traditional portrait of her daughter. Despite the praise the picture received in progressive circles, she declined to buy it. The Montross Gallery in New York later purchased the painting, which eventually entered the prestigious collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg, and became part of their bequest to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.