Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Henri Matisse painted La blouse verte brodée on 5 April 1936. This was one of a triumphant string of pictures that he created during the period which marked his emphatic return to easel painting, following his all-consuming commission for murals for Albert C. Barnes. The picture shows his studio assistant, the Russian émigré Lydia Delectorskaya, sitting back, relaxing, her blue eyes glowing. The painting has been executed on an intimate scale that forms a marked contrast with the murals that had previously occupied Matisse, lending a jewel-like appeal to the canvas, which teems with color. In it, Lydia is shown wearing the embroidered blouse of the title. Over the years, Matisse accumulated a number of textiles, be they carpets, hangings or clothes, that he used to furnish his studio and his sitters. In La blouse verte brodée, the attraction of this colorful blouse is clear to see, with the patterned sleeves in particular giving Matisse a pretext for a vibrant exploration of color, rhythm and form. “Expression... does not reside in passions growing in a human face or manifested by violent movement,” Matisse explained in terms that apply to La blouse verte brodée. “The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive” (Matisse, quoted in J. Elderfield, The Drawings of Henri Matisse, exh.cat., London & New York, 1985, p. 47).
Lydia had been born in Siberia. After the death of her parents, she had been raised in Manchuria, eventually moving to France. She joined the Matisse household in 1932, following a failed marriage. She originally worked as an assistant while the artist was engaged with the Barnes mural, La danse. Two years later, she rejoined the family as a companion for Matisse’s wife, who was unwell. It was after some time during this employment that she suddenly caught Matisse’s eye as a potential subject. Matisse had tended to ignore this fair, Slavic beauty, as she was so different to the more Southern type that he had hitherto preferred to depict, evoking his beloved odalisques. But now, he found in Lydia a means of moving forward artistically, jolting him into a new furrow of creativity, as is encapsulated in the effervescent sense of color and line in La blouse verte brodée.
Within a short space of time, Lydia was central to the creation of a string of masterpieces, for instance Le rêve of 1935, now in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, the Grand nu couché, often called the Nu rose and Les yeux bleus, both of the same year and in the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Blouse bleue of 1936 in the Kunstmuseum Bern. Impressively, the works that Matisse created during this period were painstakingly recorded by Delectorskaya. Photographs, notes and conversations from the studio were published in her book With Apparent Ease... Henri Matisse: Paintings from 1935-1939, published in 1988. This provides an incredible insight into Matisse’s working program during the course of that period, not least the arc of drawings and paintings of April 1936 to which La blouse verte brodée belongs.
These reveal the continuous effort that underpinned the painting campaign of which La blouse verte brodée was a part. Only the following day, Matisse explored a variation of the same pose on a canvas of exactly the same scale; the two days before it, he had created portrait-format pictures showing Lydia wearing what appears to be the same blouse, in one of which she is shown in her favorite pose, with her head resting on her hands on the back of a chair. For La blouse verte brodée, she is shown instead as though lounging back, relaxing under the scrutiny of the artist himself, an image of elegant languor. While appearing fresh and spontaneous, this was a sustained campaign, as Matisse explained: “I have always tried to hide my own efforts and wanted my work to have the lightness and joyousness of a springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost” (Matisse, quoted in J. Golding, “Introduction,” pp. 10-18, in Elderfield, op. cit., 1985, p. 10).
Of the explosion of pictures of Lydia that emerged in the mid-1930s, a number were nudes, but during 1936 in particular, Matisse began to show her in a number of different outfits, as is the case here. Shortly after La blouse verte brodée was painted, Matisse would add a number of formal dresses to this wardrobe, but the Romanian, Slavic and other embroidered blouses remained crucial touchstones for his paintings and drawings, reappearing over the coming years, for instance in the pared-back La blouse roumaine of 1940, now in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. It has been suggested by Ioana Vlasiu that some of these blouses were gifts from Matisse’s old friend and fellow art student, the Romanian painter Theodor Pallady, alongside whom he had worked in the studio of Gustave Moreau at the end of the Nineteenth Century (see Constantin Roman, “Pourquoi Matisse? ‘La Blouse roumaine’ de Matisse”, in Blouse Roumaine: The Unsung Voices of Romanian Women, London, 2009, excerpted online at www.romanianstudies.org). Certainly, Matisse thought of Pallady in conjunction with these outfits, as he wrote to him shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War to describe his recent acquisition of another Romanian blouse (see A. Dumas, Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams, exh. cat., London, 2005, p. 187). This Romanian connection may add an emotional resonance to the presence of these costumes in Matisse's pictures. However, the predominant interest is clearly aesthetic—the blouse is a springboard for relationships of colour and form, with the hatching and floral motifs adding an incredible vibrancy to this gem-like painting.
During the course of 1936, when La blouse verte brodée was painted, Matisse signed a three-year contract with the legendary art dealer Paul Rosenberg. It is a tribute to the quality of this painting that it passed through his hands, as his contracts tended to give him first refusal for recent works. In addition, Rosenberg included it in the exhibition he organised only the month after it was painted. This was a marked success, and featured a number of pictures painted on the same scale. Mary Hutchinson, the lover of the British artist Clive Bell, who was drawn by Matisse, visited his studio at the time, writing on the 1st June to her son in terms that show her appreciation for La blouse verte brodée and its sister pictures: “He lives at the top of a house in Montparnasse—all windows. He is now painting little tiny brilliant pictures like jewels. There are several in his show—just larger than the side of a book—a woman's head—a figure—with stripes and flowers—but unbelievably brilliant and fitted into the space” (Mary Hutchinson, letter to Jeremy Hutchinson, 1 June 1936, quoted in Richard Shone, “Matisse in England and Two English Sitters”, pp. 479-84, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 135, no. 1084, July 1993, p. 482). The picture later belonged to Heinz Berggruen, the legendary art dealer and collector who founded the famous Berlin museum that bears his name.