Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
‘For a year now, I’ve been making an enormous effort in drawing. I say effort, but that’s a mistake, because what has occurred is a floraison (‘flowering’) after fifty years of effort.’ -Henri Matisse
‘ For a while now I have involved myself in a certain colour of ideas. I lose myself in the subtleness, the exquisite and pure air of this approach. What is essential is that my prospects in this contest appear excellent...I am completely wrapped up in my work’ -Henri Matisse
In mid-August 1942 Matisse commenced painting a series of dancers attired in ruffled, frill-trimmed tutus, lounging indoors, the first canvases he had undertaken since February. During the interim he had occupied himself with the completion of the 158 drawings, begun in October 1941, that comprise his Thèmes et variations. Each theme or subject, organised into suites lettered A to P, included between three and as many as nineteen numbered sheets, and in sum constituted a chef-d’oeuvre in the art of modern drawing. Matisse completed this project during the summer of 1942; Martin Fabiani published the collection as a book, with an introduction by the poet Louis Aragon, in 1943.
‘For a year now,’ Matisse wrote on 3 April 1942 to his son Pierre, a New York dealer, ‘I’ve been making an enormous effort in drawing. I say effort, but that’s a mistake, because what has occurred is a floraison [“flowering”] after fifty years of effort’ (Matisse, quoted in J. Elderfield, Matisse Drawings, exh. cat., Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1984, p. 121). Matisse applied the lessons of his grand essay into drawing to the paintings of the Danseuses series, the last of which is the present Danseuse assise sur une table, fond rouge, begun on 12 September 1942 and completed on 4 October.
In these canvases Matisse aimed toward the eventual resolution of an issue that had been central to Western art since the Renaissance—never more urgent than among the moderns and especially in his own work as a master draughtsman and painter—‘the eternal conflict of drawing and colour in the same individual,’ as he wrote his friend André Rouveyre on 6 October 1941 (Matisse, quoted in ibid., p. 121). ‘I am paralysed by something conventional,’ Matisse had admitted in 1940 to the painter Pierre Bonnard, ‘which keeps me from expressing myself in painting as I would like. My painting and my drawing are separated’ (Matisse, quoted in ibid., p. 121). The task that Matisse had set for himself in the early 1940s was to resolve this contradiction; the results that soon emerged would determine the course of his art for the dozen years that remained to him.
The chief subjects of the Thèmes et variations drawings are women dressed in gowns and still-lifes of floral motifs; the flowing, entwined forms Matisse employed for both suggest the arch-theme of the femme-fleur—woman as flower, a vision of loveliness, fertility, and growth. Against the flat grounds, the conjunction of formal elements generates an arabesque effect, expressive and ornamental. The arabesque, Matisse explained in a 1952 interview with André Verdet, ‘is the most synthetic way to express oneself in all its aspects. You find it in the general outline of certain cave drawings. It is the impassioned impulse that swells these drawings. The arabesque is musically organised. It has its own timbre. It translates the totality of things with a sign. It makes all the phrases into a single phrase’ (Matisse, quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, pp. 210-211).
The model’s arms in the Thèmes et variations are as expressive as the women’s heads, and establish the abstract rhythms that enliven these drawn compositions. The arching, elongated, serpentine shape in the present painting—comprising the dancer’s extended right arm, bare shoulders, and bent left arm—acts as counterpoint to the swerving line of the white trim on her costume. Every element in the composition is a sign, the figure and its environment translated into abstract, plastic motifs. In conversations with Aragon in 1942, Matisse declared his intention ‘to imitate the Chinese…I have been working at my craft a long time, and it’s just as if up till now I had only been learning things, elaborating my means of expression…The importance of the artist is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the plastic language…With signs you can compose freely and ornamentally’ (Matisse, quoted in ibid., pp. 149-151).
In a letter dated 1 September 1942 to Aragon, then at work on his introduction for the Thèmes et variations drawings, Matisse described his recent progress: ‘I am finally engaged in the serious part of painting...My first essays were not very productive in regard to the intentions of my campaign, but the last one, from yesterday, allowed me to reach a step further. For a while now I have involved myself in a certain colour of ideas. I lose myself in the subtleness, the exquisite and pure air of this approach. What is essential is that my prospects in this contest appear excellent...I am completely wrapped up in my work’ (trans., Matisse, quoted in L. Delectorskaya, Henri Matisse: Contre vents et marées, Peinture et livres illustrés de 1939 à 1943, Paris, 1996, p. 378).
As a result of these efforts, Matisse soon began to work extensively in paper cut-outs. Each element in a cut-out composition is both a contoured sign and a colour form: line and colour, drawing and painting had become one.
The German invasion of France in May 1940 had forced Matisse and his studio assistant Lydia Delectorskaya, then in Paris, to flee south; it was not until the end of August that the artist was able to return to his studio at the Hôtel Régina in Nice-Cimiez. Residing in the unoccupied zone libre administered by Marshall Pétain's collaborationist regime in Vichy, the population of Nice had yet to experience privation and repression on the scale that Parisians had suffered under the German occupation. In the late summer of 1941, the American journalist Varian Fry, the chief American agent for the Emergency Rescue Committee, visited Matisse, hoping to persuade him to move to safety in the United States, as Chagall, Ernst, Léger, and other artists had already done. ‘But in spite of the growing food shortages,’ Fry later said, ‘and the difficulty that he was already having in finding canvases and pigments, he said he preferred to stay in France. He was comfortable in his studio and able to work there, and he was not at all sure he would be comfortable or able to work in the United States. He was so warm, so simple, so direct and in a sense so naïve and childlike in his approach to the world and its problems that I hated to leave him behind when I left France’ (V. Fry, quoted in J. Russell, Matisse Father & Son, New York, 1999, p. 226). Matisse refused to ‘desert’ France; the German takeover in November 1942 of Vichy territory finally closed the borders until the Allied Liberation in August 1944.
Matisse had medical issues, moreover, to confront. In early 1941 he barely survived the complications of emergency abdominal surgery, from which he slowly recovered. ‘My terrible operation has completely rejuvenated and made a philosopher of me,’ he wrote to the painter Albert Marquet in 1942. ‘I had so completely prepared for my exit from life, that it seems to me that I am in a second life’ (Matisse, quoted in J. Cowart, et al., Henri Matisse: Paper Cut-Outs, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1977, p. 43).
The Thèmes et variations drawings, together with the series of Danseuse canvases, mark the beginning of Matisse’s magnificently productive and innovative ‘second life’. The Turkish princess Nézy-Hamidé Chawkat posed for many of the drawings and the few paintings the artist completed during the months following his surgery. Before leaving to get married in the summer of 1942, she introduced the artist to her friend Carla Avogadro, an Italian countess. Matisse, Carla, and the present Danseuse assise sur une table, fond rouge—in an early state—appear in a photograph taken in September.