Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
‘The moments of the past do not remain still; they retain in our memory the motion which drew them towards the future, towards a future which has itself become the past, and draw us on in their train.’ -Marcel Proust
Henri Matisse painted Nu sur la chaise longue in Issy-les-Moulineaux, a commune in the southwestern suburbs of Paris, during 1920. The artist leased a house as his family home on the route de Clamart during the summer of 1909. In a large, pre-fabricated studio constructed in the yard behind the house, Matisse painted the murals La Danse and La Musique later that year. This northern venue for Nu sur la chaise longue in 1920 is unusual and surprising: Matisse incorporated in this painting certain domestic motifs, and imported the model as well, from pictures he had been creating during his lengthy, annual sojourns in Nice, normally lasting from the autumn of one year through the late spring of the next. The present painting was executed in Issy between the artist’s third and fourth seasons on the Côte d’Azur.
The telltale pictorial feature signifying Issy in Nu sur la chaise longue is the large atelier window and the garden foliage showing through it. The French windows of the Hôtel de la Méditerranée, in the small rooms where Matisse painted while staying in Nice, were relatively narrow in their combined width. The decorative floral screen in the present picture appears in two seated portraits Matisse painted in Issy during the summer of 1919 (Dauberville, no. 339; and Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum). The sitter for these pictures was Antoinette Arnoud, Matisse’s chief model in Nice from late 1918 into early 1921; he had invited her to Issy that summer to stay with his family and continue their work together. Although Antoinette is not known to have visited Issy during 1920, it is her ample figure, her bobbed hair wrapped in a turban, that appear in the present painting as well.
The chaise longue first appeared in Nice paintings during 1919, mentioned in titles as le canapé rose or rouge. Small tables draped with a red-striped cloth also featured as an eye-catching motif in Matisse’s interiors during this time. These domestic accoutrements, but without the Issy studio window, also appear in Nu assis, which Matisse painted in Étretat during the early summer of 1920 (Dauberville, no. 440; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).
Nice, Issy, Étretat…one discovers in Nu sur la chaise longue that the pictorial elements comprising the arrangement of a Matisse interior may not be specific and unique to any particular place, but exist instead as various visual ingredients that contribute to a portable feast of possibilities, which the artist carried in his memory. From such imagery Matisse would select, combine, alter, and embellish— as suited the occasion and answered the call of his imagination—the content of the work at hand.
During late 1919 through 1920, Matisse was often on the move. He traveled four times to London, where he worked on Serge Diaghilev’s production of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le chant du rossignol, attended the Covent Garden premiere, and was present for the opening of his exhibition at the Leicester Galleries. The artist’s mother died in Bohain on 25 January 1920. In late spring his daughter Marguerite underwent delicate surgery to repair her larynx, damaged during an emergency tracheotomy when she was a child. From Issy in July, Matisse and his wife Amélie took Marguerite to Étretat, where they spent the month as the young woman convalesced. He later drove them to a spa in Aix-les-Bains, and returned to paint in Normandy. Matisse spent September in Issy; he then collected Amélie and Marguerite in Aix and headed south to Nice, where he commenced his fourth season there.
Matisse viewed his rooms in the Hôtel de la Méditerranée as if they were stage sets, his model a starring actress. ‘An old and good hotel, of course!’ Matisse reminisced with Francis Carco in 1953. ‘I stayed there four years for the pleasure of painting nudes and figures in an old sirocco sitting room. Do you remember the light we had through the shutters? It came from below as if from theatre footlights. Everything was fake, absurd, amazing, delicious’ (Matisse, quoted in J. Cowart & D. Fourcade, Matisse: The Early Years in Nice, 1916-1930, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1986, p. 24).
The poet and playwright Charles Vildrac visited Matisse during his 1920-1921 season in Nice. ‘Without a doubt, I found myself in the room “of the Matisse paintings”’, he wrote. ‘This room wasn’t as big as I thought… Besides, I had to realise that the painter had given it a fresh and entirely submissive soul, a soul which in reality it did not have… Finally, and this really struck me: these objects I was discovering were singularly eclipsed by the pictorial memory I had of them… Didn’t Matisse paint this window, these curtains saturated with light, this red rug, this furniture, the same day as when some magician had created this room with the stroke of a wand, while each object…offered up its grace to the light? You understand, the magician had been Matisse himself’ (C. Vildrac, quoted in ibid., p. 26).
Nice was home to the Studios de la Victorine, the southern centre of the French film industry. Catherine Bock-Weiss has discerned the strong influence of silent, black-and-white cinema on Matisse’s painting during the 1920s; he enjoyed movies as relaxation from his work, and observed directorial and production techniques while visiting the studios. ‘In his post-1918 work, Matisse breaks free from a compressed and tactile space that is evident in his earliest works as well as his cubist-inspired compositions. The spatial illusions in the Nice paintings seem to be the result of a mobile viewpoint’ (C. Bock-Weiss, Henri Matisse: Modernist Against the Grain, University Park, Penn., 2009, p. 111).
Matisse appreciated the French cinematic practice of using natural light to create fullness of form. Devoid of colour, early black-and-white cinema emphasised the role of light as a means of pictorial construction and expression. ‘Cinema was there to provide Matisse with a liberating model for “looking” and “selecting”, for such a humble and transformational dialogue with the natural world. It also provided a hallucinatory model for the release of hitherto unexpressed dreams and desires’ (C. Bock-Weiss, ibid., p. 118).
Just as the pictorial elements in Nu sur la chaise longue, within the time frame that Matisse painted the canvas, transcended the specifics of place, the significance that this painting held for the artist extended several years into the future. ‘Mixing memory with desire’— as T. S. Eliot described the advent of spring—the present painting prompted a second incarnation as Nu au divan ou nu bras levés, which Matisse painted in Issy during the summer of 1923 (Dauberville, no. 579; Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena).