Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
We would like to thank Julia May Boddewyn for her assistance researching the provenance of this work.
‘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’ -Henri Matisse
The mise en scène is austere and uncomplicated: a woman unclothed, an unmade bed and its creased white linens, set against a bare wall and on a thin slice of red flooring. When Henri Matisse painted Nu demi couché, likely in early 1918, he riveted his eye on these essential elements only. No narrative is implied, nor is there anything gratuitive or extraneous in this bold statement of the artist’s model as a powerful, palpable presence.
Matisse, in his intense concentration, sought to create a modern pictorial reality in the clearest, most reductive way he could achieve with the fundamental means at his disposal. To the organisation of forms as he conceived them to represent figure and ground, Matisse employed both line and modulated colour (strong or neutral) to impart the effect of volume and mass, nearness and depth. Plunging into the principal paradox of modern painting, Matisse simultaneously acknowledged and opposed the immutable flatness of the rectangular canvas.
Nu demi couché represents the beginning of new phase in Matisse’s approach to depicting the figure, a development related to a pivotal conflation of circumstances and decisions in his career at this time. During the summer of 1917, as the Great War was nearing the end of its third year, Matisse’s eldest son Jean was conscripted into the armed forces. Lorette and her sisters (see also lot 9) ceased posing for the artist that autumn. In mid-December the artist headed south to Marseille, to visit Jean in his training camp, and later met with a favourite fellow painter, Albert Marquet. He thereafter travelled alone along the Côte d’Azur, stopping in L’Estaque. On Christmas Day, Matisse arrived in Nice, where he took a room in the Hôtel Beau-Rivage on the quai des Etats-Unis, overlooking the Mediterranean.
On 31 December, Matisse’s 48th birthday, the artist bought a new canvas and painted a view of his narrow hotel room (Dauberville, no. 215; Philadelphia Museum of Art). The white panel or screen alongside the bed and the red colour of the carpeting appear in Nu demi couché. Matisse began a second painting on New Year’s Day, 1918, a self-portrait, the final work of this kind in his career.
During Matisse’s first week in Nice, his friend the collector Georges Besson took him to visit Renoir in nearby Cagnes-sur-Mer. Then 76 years old, the veteran Impressionist had been suffering from crippling arthritis for years; he nevertheless continued to paint every day except Sundays. Matisse admired Renoir’s fortitude and unshakable dedication to his work. ‘[Matisse] must have been as impressed by Renoir's unabashed enthusiasm for female beauty as by his lively curiosity and courage,’ Jack Flam has written. ‘Matisse was not yet known as a painter of sensual nudes; he had not been primarily a painter of nudes at all… Renoir gave him the impetus to make new contact with own sensuality... 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, 1986, p. 473).
The meeting with Renoir, followed by about dozen more prior to the master’s death in late 1919, appears to have persuaded Matisse to take up the nude once again. Subsequently translated into the role of the Orientalist odalisque, the nude or partially clothed young woman would become the defining theme of the Nice period. Nu demi couché is perhaps the earliest product of this influence. The modelled, sculptural aspect of the figure in the present painting suggests that Matisse was also thinking of Courbet, five of whose paintings he had acquired from Bernheim-Jeune during 1916-1917, especially Femme blonde endormie, 1849, which he brought home in August 1917.
Another source for Matisse was in fact a sculpture—Michelangelo’s semi-reclining female nude La Notte, a cast of which he studied and drew in the local École des arts décoratifs. ‘I’ve been completely ensnared by a woman,’ Matisse wrote to Marquet, ‘I’m spending all my time with her, and I think I’ll definitely be staying here for the rest of the winter’ (Matisse, quoted in H. Spurling, Matisse the Master, London & New York, 2005, p. 206).
Nu demi couché represents a significant step towards the synthesis that Matisse sought to create in his new environment. ‘When you have achieved what you want in a certain area,’ he explained to the art historian Ragnar Hoppe in 1919, ‘when you have exploited the possibilities that lie in one direction, you must, when the time comes, change course, search for something new. One must keep one’s eye, one’s feeling, fresh; one must follow one’s instincts. I am seeking a new synthesis… I first worked as an Impressionist, directly from nature; later I sought concentration and more intense expression both in line and colour, and then, of course, I had to sacrifice other values to a certain degree, corporeality and spatial depth, the richness of detail. Now I want to combine it all’ (Matisse, quoted in J. Flam, ed., op. cit., 1995, pp. 75-76).