With events of the First World War weighing heavily on his mind, Matisse painted very little during the early months of 1915. When he resumed, he painted some still-lifes, and in 1916 embarked on a series of remarkably austere, almost schematic compositions, with dominantly black and gray tonalities, such as Les morocaines (The Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Baigneuses au bords de la rivière (The Art Institute of Chicago). However, these works appeared to mark the very boundaries of what was possible with the figure, and to continue in this way was to run the risk of falling into mannerism. In a 1919 interview with Swedish art historian Ragnar Hoppe, Matisse stated, "Yes, you see, when you achieve what you want in a certain area, when you have exploited the possibilities that lie in one direction, you must, when the time comes, change course, search for something new" (quoted in J. Flam, Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 75).
Matisse and his family had a house in Issy-les-Moulineaux, just outside Paris. He painted there as well, and at the same time kept his old studio on the Quai Saint-Michel in Paris, whose windows opened on the Seine and overlooked Notre Dame. In 1916 he began to work frequently again in the smaller confines of this studio, doing mostly portraits and studio interiors. He painted L'Atelier du Quai Saint-Michel (fig. 1) in late 1916, or early 1917. Matisse had engaged a professional model named Lorette (also spelled Laurette), a dark haired woman of Mediterranean descent, who came to preside over the transition of Matisse's more reductivist, cubist-inspired works into the sensuous realism of the Nice period. Matisse portrayed her in approximately fifty paintings, his first series based on a single model. The work of Courbet became an important influence during this period; Matisse owned several works by this artist, including his Femme espagnole, 1855 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), which shows a dark, olive-complexioned woman very much like Lorette. The earthy palette of Courbet is seen in the wall and floor of L'Atelier du Quai Saint-Michel, contrasted with the figure of Lorette, who reclines on a couch or small bed covered by a red spread with a white floral pattern.
If the architecture of the studio interior recalls Matisse's work of the previous couple of years, the figure of Lorette on the bed prefigures the dominant motif for the artist's next phase, which would reach luxuriant fruition in Nice during the next half dozen years: the odalisque. The theme carries with it recollections of Matisse's visits to Morocco, as well as the Orientalist tradition in 19th Century French painting. "I do Odalisques in order to do nudes". Matisse later told Tériade, "But how does one do the nude without being artificial? And then, because I know that they exist. I was in Morocco. I have seen them" (quoted in ibid., p. 86). This theme is not merely a reference to convention, nor is it intended to document an exotic way of life that still existed at that time. "By dressing these erotic nudes in exotic clothing, Matisse, like Delacroix and Ingres before him, was able to distance himself aesthetically from the erotic content of his pictures. Whereas earlier this aesthetic distancing had been affected by the intense formal abstraction of the nudes he painted, here it was accomplished through thematic means" (J. Flam, Matisse: The Man and his Art, 1869-1918, Ithaca, 1986, p. 442).
The figure of Lorette reclining in L'Atelier du Quai Saint-Michel actually refers to a second painting already in progress: Lorette allongée sur un lit rose. Even the placement of her hair, seen falling over her left arm, is the same. This picture shows Matisse's new interest in realism coming to the fore; Lorette's figure is modeled by means of closely gauged tonal values and the artist makes no use of the heavy black lines used to define the contours of the nude in L'Atelier du Quai Saint-Michel. The floral design on the red slipcover, which is abbreviated with swift swirls of white paint in the latter, is picked out with more detail in Lorette allongée. For this composition Matisse settled on a contrasting tonality of red and black, which he has carried forward in the present painting as well. The black shape seen behind Lorette's legs in Lorette allongeé also plays a role in the present work; it is very likely the same sheer, Spanish-style shawl depicted in both paintings.
Indeed the semi-transparent shawl, "an effect which would scarcely have interested the painter the year before", becomes the center of attention in Femme couchée (A. Barr, Matisse: His Art and his Public, New York, 1951, p. 191). The shawl has the effect of heightening the eroticism of the pose by teasing the viewer with a glimpse of pubic hair and accentuating the curves of odalisque's body, which seems not so much draped in this lacy garment as it is confined, cocoon-like, within it. Matisse paints the effect of the sheer material more by means of suggestion than any precise depiction of detail, and the subtle effect of Lorette's pink flesh showing through the blackness of the garment is absolutely convincing. In contrast to Lorette allongeé, in which Matisse was content to model Lorette's face in a straightforward and naturalistic manner, the artist prefered in Femme couchée to emphasize her dusky complexion and the soft roundness of her face, lending her a more sultry and languorous aspect, which appears to reveal the involvement and interest of the artist in a degree unmatched in the other versions of this subject.
The present work is truthful to the original conception of this subject in ways other than the use of the model and red slipcover. The rusty red background in Femme couchée recalls the brownish walls in L'Atelier du Quai Saint-Michel, and in both paintings the artist shades the right hand side toward an olive tone, where the wall turns a corner and borders on the window (which is unseen in the present work). It is possible that the artist intended to use the white of the canvas for the accents of the floral design on the slipcover one such area is visible just left of lower center, but the stark white would have been too strident for the overall tonality of the composition, and Matisse chose instead to paint in grayish flowers that harmonize more closely with the shawl.
In October 1917 Matisse began his first winter stay in Nice, returning to Issy and Paris early in the summer of 1918. Matisse returned to the subject of Lorette reclining once again in Lorette allongée enveloppée dans un châle, painted in 1918 (fig. 2). This version shows a marked economy of means: it is more thinly painted, using diluted washes of color in place of the heavier application of paint seen in Femme couchée. As a result the forms are more drawn than modeled, and the later version is notable for the careful rendering of the floral detail in the upper part of the shawl. The background in this work eschews the deep red-brown tone seen in Femme couchée, and reverts to the ocher tone of Lorette allongée sur un lit rose.
Together these four paintings, done within the space of nearly two years, trace a remarkable progression of style and painterly technique. At the heart of this evolution is the repetition of the subject and its setting, and the apparent fascination of the artist for this erotically charged subject. While we commonly note Picasso's intense emotional involvement in his models and all the psycho-sexual drama that this entails, it would miss the point not to see a similar involvement between artist and model in the works of Matisse. It must be noted that Matisse, with his more reserved, northern temperament, did not declare his intentions so explicitly, preferring to veil his fantasies in Orientalist garb.
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, L'Atelier du quai Saint-Michel, 1916, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Lorette allongée enveloppée dans un châle, 1918, Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena.
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE NEW YORK COLLECTION
Signed 'Henri Matisse.' (lower left)
Berlin, Galerie Thannhauser, Henri Matisse, February-March 1930, no. 48.
Buenos Aires, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Pintura Francesa, 1939, no. 180.
Uruguay, Museo Montevideo, 1940.
Universidad de Chile, Faculdad de Bellas Artes, May 1940.
Rio de Janeiro, Museu Nacional de Bellas Artes, July 1940.
San Francisco, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, The Paintings of France since the French Revolution, December 1940-January 1961, p. 38, no. 146 (titled Woman with Black Shawl).
The Art Institute of Chicago, Masterpieces of French Art, April-May 1941, p. 32, no. 105 (titled Woman with Black Shawl).
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Painting of France, June 1941, no. 90 (titled Woman with Black Shawl).
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1941-1946 (on extended loan).
21¾ x 32¼ in. (55.2 x 82 cm.)
R. Huyghe, Histoire de l'art contemporain, Paris, 1934, p. 109 (illustrated, fig. 124).
G.-P. and M. Dauberville, Matisse, Paris, 1995, vol. I, p. 608, no. 199 (illustrated, p. 609).
Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Paris.
Justin K. Thannhauser, New York (by 1930).
Acquired from the above by the present owners, 10 February 1947.
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