In 1948 Matisse began to work on designs for the stained glass windows, ceramic murals, spire, roof, interior furnishings and vestments for the Dominican chapel in Vence. Until he completed this commission in 1951 he made no paintings. Lydia Delectorskaya, his model and studio assistant, observed that "Matisse's artistic activity was divided at that time between two modes: large drawings made with a thick brush and India ink and compositions of cut-out gouache-painted paper. He envisaged the Chapel scheme as a chance to combine the two modes" (quoted in J. Elderfield, The Drawings of Henri Matisse, exh. cat., The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1984, p. 127).
Tête de femme is another example of Matisse working in both modes, merging drawing with his cut-outs. The artist used the image in the present drawing in the paper cut-out maquette for Madame de Pompadour, which he executed in 1951 as a poster for a gala at Ecole des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (fig. 1). Madame de Pompadour was Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson (1721-1764), who in 1745 became the official mistress of Louis XV. She was an important patron of the arts and literature during the Enlightenment, and had a special interest in architecture and the decorative arts, inspiring the "Pompadour" style. In his drawing Matisse also makes reference to the pompadour hair style that was popular among women during the 1940s and 1950s.
Following his series of large brush and ink drawings in the late 1940s (see lot 5), which featured mixed figure and still-life compositions, Matisse turned increasingly to portraiture, one of his favorite subjects. In the introduction to the folio Portraits, 1954, Matisse wrote, "The human face has always greatly interested me. [Faces] probably retain my attention through their expressive individuality and through an interest that is entirely of a plastic nature. Each face has its own rhythm and it is this rhythm that creates the likeness. The conclusion of this is: the art of portraiture is the most remarkable" (reprinted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, pp. 220, 221 and 223).
Many of Matisse's late portrait drawings are little more than masks that fill the page. The present drawing, on the other hand, is noteworthy for the fullness of the image, the asymmetrical placement of the head on a horizontal sheet, and the use of blank space on the right side to create an airy, light-filled composition. Composed of multiple contrapuntal lines, the image nonetheless gives the impression of a unified arabesque, a sweeping gesture that animates the sheet and defines all aspects of form, space, light and shadow. Matisse explained that the arabesque is "the most synthetic way to express oneself in all one's aspects. It has a real function. It translates the totality of things with a sign. It makes all the phrases into a single phrase" (in an 1952 interview with André Verdet, ibid., pp. 210-211).
Elderfield has called these late portrait drawings "haunting and highly memorable works of art--such bare, exposed things. They illuminate, as does the late work in particular, with a very steady light, spreading to fill the sheet with an even radiance. And for all their power as images, their drawing is indeed curiously unobtrusive: the fewest and swiftest of lines and the glowing sign is there" (op. cit, p. 134).
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, Madame de Pompadour, paper cut-out, 1951. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. BARCODE 23668041