Matisse first visited Nice during the winter of 1917, and was so taken with the light he found there that he returned every year thereafter, staying for at least six months of the year, usually between October and May. Matisse became good friends with Pierre-Auguste Renoir, then near the end of his life, and taking his example, turned to painting the nude in an unabashedly sensual manner, which was quite new for him, especially coming after the severe and reductionistic geometry of his wartime Paris works.
Matisse produced three sculptures at the beginning of the Nice period (Duthuit and de Guébriant, nos. 61-63), and then in 1919 yielded exclusively to his new intoxication with painting from the model. In the early 1920s, however, the artist appears to have felt the need to move beyond the Impressionist-like approach to color and handling that he had been taking in his painting, and sought a more concentrated and constructive conception of pictorial form. From a series of drawings of a seated nude with her arms raised above her head, the artist conceived the idea for a large sculpture, which became Grand nu assis (1922-1929; Duthuit and de Guébriant, no. 64). Isabelle Monod-Fontaine has suggested that Petit nu au canapé, the present sculpture, "might also be a first sketch for the Large Seated Nude. With the exception of the detail of the leg, which is entwined with the other in the Large Seated Nude but merely raised and placed on the edge of the sofa in the small nude, the pose is the same" (op. cit., p. 37). The sofa is an important element in the balance of the figure, "Matisse's preoccupation with painting the figure in terms of its environment, in relation to the furniture and objects which make up the decor in which it moves, is integrated in his sculpture too" (ibid.). Between the drawings and this small sculpture, however, Matisse removed most of the back of the chair so that the nude appears as if perched on a lower seat, almost like an ottoman, thus clearly shifting the focus in the sculpture away from the model's lower torso to the arabesque created by her upraised arms. In Grand nu assis Matisse reduced the seat even further, so that it functions more like a plinth than a chair, on which he perched the nude figure so that she leans back at such a precarious angle that she appears almost on the verge of tumbling backwards.
Monod-Fontaine has also remarked that Petit nu au canapé has a "specifically spontaneous quality," indeed, one may perhaps compare it to a fully realized but quickly executed sketch in clay, not unlike the richly worked rubbed charcoal drawings that Matisse executed in the early years of the 1920s, in which he was less interested in the solid, volumetric construction of the figure than in the play of light across the model's features. John Elderfield has noted that, "The lightened volumes of Renoir were especially important to Matisse in the 1920s. Seated Nude with Arm Raised [a charcoal drawing done circa 1922 related to these sculptures] is at once solid and transparent, at once a vigorous sculptural unit and almost a ghost." Matisse organized form with light, "a soft southern light [that] could give to volumes a pearlescent luster" (The Drawings of Henri Matisse, exh. cat., The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1984, p. 86).