Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
The year 1908 was marked by several important transitions for Matisse. In addition to opening a school, to which he devoted a good deal of time and energy over the next few years, he began to attract new collectors (most importantly, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov), and his work became increasingly well known outside of France. By the end of the year, he had published one of the most important artist's statements of the twentieth century, "Notes of a Painter," and had come to be recognized as perhaps the most original and influential artist alive (though this position would be threatened almost immediately by the rise of Cubism). Hilary Spurling has written, "[At Christmas 1908], Matisse was a week short of his fortieth year. For the first time in the two decades since he had become a painter, he could propose a tentative toast to the future. However much abuse he still had to endure at the hands of the press, the public, and the art establishment, he had the support of a small but vigorous band of activists headed by Sarah Stein, Hans Purrmann, and the Molls. He already knew that Shchukin's backing would open the inner doors of his creative energy. Perhaps even more important, he had found in Picasso a rival whose phenomenally swift reactions and implacably demanding eye would challenge him to the limit" (The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse, The Early Years, 1869-1908, New York, 1999, p. 422).
L'Ilyssus du Parthénon is part of a group of still-lifes that Matisse painted in this seminal year, in which he developed a new visual language based on strong color harmonies, intensely flattened space, and a tendency toward decorative patterning. The sequence culminated in the monumental Harmonie rouge (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), which was the centerpiece of Matisse's submission to the 1908 Salon d'Automne. In the present canvas, the artist has assembled on a tabletop several lemons, a jug that he had brought back from his trip to Algeria in 1906, and a small-scale plaster cast of a reclining figure from the west pediment of the Parthenon, believed to represent the Greek river god Ilyssus (fig. 1). The painting is particularly close both in style and composition to a still-life from the summer of 1906, Les oignons roses (fig. 2), which Matisse still considered sufficiently important in 1908 that he included it in the Salon d'Automne alongside more recent paintings. Jack Flam has written about Les oignons roses, "The objects are simplified and flattened like those in a child's drawing. They are placed in an abstract space, unrelated to a specific viewpoint, devoid of atmosphere, and without light and shadow. Here, Matisse has employed a simplified, primitivist technique to diminish the sense of actuality and emphasize the symbolic relationships among the objects" ("Primitivism" in 20th Century Art, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1984, vol. I, p. 221). In the present painting, the undulating form of the jug echoes that of the reclining statuette (note especially the parallel between the handles of the vessel and the fragmentary arms of the figure, and between the vessel's mouth and the break surface at the sculpture's neck), the vase takes on a decidedly animate role in the compositional drama, shepherding the flock of lemons past the plaster cast. As Matisse instructed his students, "To copy the objects in a still-life is nothing; one must render the emotion they awaken in him. The emotion of the ensemble... the specific character of every object-- modified by its relation to the others... the tear-like quality of this slender fat-bellied vase, the generous volume of this copper must touch you..." (quoted in A.H. Barr, Jr., op. cit., p. 127).
The inclusion of the Parthenon cast in the painting is particularly noteworthy, reflecting Matisse's well-documented and lifelong interest in the art of antiquity. As a student at the Académie Julian and the studio of Gustave Moreau, he made copious drawings from plaster casts of broken ancient statuary. Several of these traditional exercises, which were a standard element of art education in the nineteenth century, are preserved, including drawings of the Capitoline Niobid and Lysippus's Hermes Adjusting His Sandal (Musée Matisse, Nice-Cimiez and Privace collection). The habit of drawing from ancient art persisted throughout Matisse's career, as demonstrated by a photograph of the artist sketching from a Greek kouros in the Louvre as late as 1946. He also made at least one sculpture after a classical prototype, a free interpretation of the Roman bronze The Spinario (Thorn Extractor) from 1906 (Duthuit, no. 26). A painting that Matisse made of Moreau's studio in 1895 shows a plaster cast of an ancient sculpture standing behind the live model (whereabouts unknown; see ibid., p. 12), and when Matisse set up his own art school in 1908, he continued this tradition by placing in a niche of the main classroom a cast of the archaic Apollo Piombino, obtained from the Louvre's Department of Casts. That this was more than a token concession to convention is revealed through Sarah Stein's class notes, which contain several references that Matisse made to the sculpture during his demonstrations and critiques. Another student, Greta Moll, recalled working for a whole week on a drawing after a cast of the Borghese Gladiator, which the class had purchased from the Louvre on Matisse's instructions. Some time before World War I, Matisse purchased a Roman copy of a Greek torso of a woman, which he included in several still-life paintings (e.g. Le torse de plâtre, bouquet de fleurs, 1919; Museu de Arte de São Paulo; and Figure assise et le torse grec, 1939; sold Christie's, London, 24 June 2008, lot 4). He also owned a cast of the kouros from Delphi known as Biton, which still stood in his studio at his death.
The present painting is one of two canvases from 1908 that depict a cast of the Parthenon Ilyssus, which presumably formed part of Matisse's collection as well. The second is a portrait, Jeune fille aux yeux verts, in which the cast is placed alongside several vases on a ledge in the background (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Matisse's interest in the Ilyssus cast at this time may have been kindled by his own experience painting and sculpting the reclining figure during the immediately preceding years. His most monumental and important canvases from 1904-1906--Luxe, calme et volupté (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and Le bonheur de vivre (Barnes collection, Merion, Pennsylvania)--both feature recumbent female nudes. In the summer of 1906, he modeled Nu couché à la chemise (Duthuit, no. 19), whose pose is loosely derived from a well-known Hellenistic composition, the Sleeping Ariadne, and whose rippling drapery deliberately evokes classical prototypes. The following year, he sculpted a second reclining figure, Nu couché I: Aurore (Duthuit, no. 30), in which the mellifluous contours of the 1906 statuette were replaced by more expressive handling and burlier proportions. This sculpture formed the basis for his major 1907 canvas, Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra (fig. 3). The powerful, almost masculine physique of Nu couché I and Nu bleu, especially the bulging shoulders and biceps, may have inspired Matisse to explore the pictorial possibilities of the Ilyssus cast, which depicts a reclining male nude. Notably, he has made the pectoral muscles of the Ilyssus appear more pendulous in the present painting than they are in the original sculpture and has also obscured the genitals, heightening the sexual ambiguity of the ancient fragment. The anatomical distortions of Nu couché I and Nu bleu were likely inspired in part by Matisse's recent study of African sculpture, and we may wonder whether the artist saw something subversive in applying them to the Ilyussus, a canonical western sculpture; the depiction of this academic talisman may also have been an ironic reference to Matisse's traditional training, intended for a public skeptical of his increasingly bold and experimental production.
The inclusion of works of art within other works of art is a familiar theme in western painting. The de Heem still-life that Matisse copied in 1893 has a large tondo in the background (Musée Matisse, Nice-Cimiez), and among late nineteenth century masters, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh all painted still-lifes in which art objects (including plaster casts) play important compositional and iconographic roles. Matisse was especially fond of including his own paintings and especially his sculptures in his work; between 1906 and 1916, he painted no fewer than fifteen canvases in which his statuettes (most frequently, Nu couché I) are used as part of a still-life composition, accompanied by pots, vases, fishbowls, flowers, or fruit (fig. 4). This practice allowed Matisse to introduce a figural presence within the scale of a still-life, as well as to explore formal analogies among human, floral, and geometric forms. The statuettes in Matisse's still-lifes also contribute to a play of flatness and volume that represents a central concern for the artist during this period; as Spurling has written, they constitute "the little band of familiars Matisse used to help him disrupt and reassemble pictorial conventions of form and space" (op. cit., p. 388). The insistent three-dimensionality of the Ilyssus cast, for instance, contrasts with the flatness of the lemons and with the dematerialized, abstract space suggested by the blue wall. Flam has concluded, "In these paintings the animate and the inanimate, the linear and the planar, the flat and the three-dimensional are brought together in such a fashion that they create a new way of seeing the world" (Matisse, The Man and His Art, 1869-1918, Ithaca, New York, 1986, p. 232).
The river god Ilyssus from the west pediment of the Parthenon, mid-fifth century BC. British Museum, London.
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Les oignons roses, 1906. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra, 1907. Baltimore Museum of Art.
(fig. 4) Henri Matisse, Le bronze aux oeillets, 1908. Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo.