Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
In November and December of 1936, Matisse painted four closely related canvases that depict his studio assistant and favorite model, Lydia Delectorskaya, sprawled languidly in an armchair, her legs seductively splayed. She is nude but for a sheer, loose-fitting peignoir and a necklace of blue beads; in the background, the broad leaves of a tall houseplant caress the top of the chair, echoing the languorous model’s natural beauty, sensuality, and fertility. The present Nu assis, fond bleu is the culminating statement in this inventive sequence of latter-day odalisques, daringly orchestrated and provocatively modern. It was the last of the four to be painted, and whereas the other canvases had each occupied Matisse for only two or three days, he worked and re-worked the present painting for more than a fortnight, stripping away the trappings of illusionistic space to produce a powerfully abstracted ensemble of forms that transcends the literal subject of the painting. “The woman’s body and her surroundings have been so drastically distilled,” Jack Flam has written, “that they function more as signs than as representations” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2012, p. 141).
This sequence of nudes dates to a watershed moment in Matisse’s career. From late 1929 through 1934, the artist had executed only a few easel paintings. He spent three months in Tahiti in early 1930, seeking fresh light and new inspiration, and he traveled that fall to Pittsburgh to serve on the jury of the Carnegie Institute International Exhibition. From late 1930 until May 1933, he worked intensively on La Danse, the large, decorative mural that Dr. Albert C. Barnes had commissioned for his home in Pennsylvania. During this period, he also made arrangements for an important series of four retrospective exhibitions, in Berlin, Paris, Basel, and New York. This landmark juncture in his career–he was now in his mid-sixties–appeared to Matisse to mark the end of one phase of his life and the beginning of another. He explained to the noted art publisher Tériade, “When you have worked a long time in the same milieu, it is useful at a given moment to stop and take a voyage which will let parts of the mind rest while other parts have free rein–especially those parts repressed by the will. This stopping permits a withdrawal and consequently an examination of the past. You begin again with more certainty” (quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 88).
When Matisse resumed easel painting–somewhat tentatively at first, in late 1933 and early 1934–he found himself with two alternatives. He could return to the lush, hedonistic daydreams of flesh, fabric, and flowers that had occupied him at Nice during the previous decade, or he could renew a highly experimental streak in his art, interrupted in 1918. He boldly chose the latter course, determined to reclaim his status as a leading proponent of modernism. Although his subject par excellence remained the odalisque, he now brought to it all the powers of invention and discipline that he could muster, turning away from the illusionistic description of forms in space to the abstract denotation of objects by condensed pictorial signs. “The painting is not a mirror reflecting what I experienced while creating it,” Matisse explained, “but a powerful object, strong and expressive, which is as novel for me as for anyone else” (quoted in ibid., p. 143).
A compelling catalyst in Matisse’s successful realization of this new mode of expression was the presence of Lydia Delectorskaya, the principal model and muse of his late years. The artist had first hired the young Russian émigré in 1932 to help him in his studio with La Danse, and he engaged her again in October 1934 as a companion to his ailing wife. Yet he initially showed little interest in her as a subject for his work. “I was not his type,” Lydia recalled. “With the exception of his daughter, most of the models who had inspired him were southern types. But I was a blonde, very blonde” (op. cit., 1988, p. 16). In February 1935, however, Matisse had been trying unsuccessfully for months to regain what he called his “colored vision” when the sight of Lydia daydreaming inspired him to paint Les yeux bleus (Baltimore Museum of Art). “This first painting of Lydia...was the signal he had been waiting for,” Hilary Spurling has written. “Matisse looked back on it later as the first shot in an experimental campaign” (Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, New York, 2005, p. 355).
Matisse’s discovery of Lydia’s potential as a model initiated a period of intense and sustained activity. From April until October, she posed for the artist’s great masterwork of the mid-thirties, Grand nu couché (Nu rose) (Baltimore Museum of Art). Renewing the profound, triangular relationship between the artist, his model, and the painting, Matisse subjected the figure to unlimited invention, transformation, and variation, documented in seventeen photographs that Lydia took as the canvas evolved. Compared to the lavish odalisques of the 1920s, the finished Nu rose is an austere and laconic statement that defines the very essence of painting in its most modern aspect. When Pierre Matisse first saw the canvas, he told his father, “It’s the one in which you’ve renewed yourself, it’s a sequel to the great decorations” (quoted in ibid., p. 360).
Like the photographs of Nu rose in progress, the sequence of four seated nudes that Matisse painted the next year–which culminated, once again, with the present Nu assis, fond bleu–testify to the highly ambitious project that the artist had set for himself. He was testing anew the plastic possibilities of color and form, a process which while underway was unpredictable and fraught with obstacles, but when resolved resulted in the most profound simplification and essential purity of the image. “At each stage, I reach a balance, a conclusion,” Matisse explained in 1936. “At the next sitting, if I find there is a weakness in the whole, I make my way back into the picture by means of the weakness–I re-enter through the breach–and I reconceive the whole. Thus everything becomes fluid again and as each element is only one of the component forces (as in an orchestration), the whole can be changed in appearance but the feeling sought still remains the same. At the final stage the painter finds himself freed, and his emotion exists complete in his work” (quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., 1995, p. 123).
Matisse began the sequence of seated nudes on 3-5 November 1936 with a thinly brushed oil sketch, Nu au fauteuil et feuillage (Musée Matisse, Nice), in which the generalized contours and facelessness of the model announce the artist’s decorative, synthetic aim. In Femme nue drapée (Tate Gallery, London), painted on 6-7 November, traces of illusionism linger in the portrait-like facial features, the foreshortening of the limbs, and the subtle recession of the armchair. After a day’s rest, however, Matisse painted the third canvas in the sequence (see exh. cat., op. cit., 2012, p. 139), in which the forms of the nude are more rigorously flattened, and the ground is articulated with bold, linear patterns that serve as rhythmic orchestration for the main subject.
In Nu assis, fond bleu, which Matisse grappled with from November 16th until December 6th, he pushed this process of transformation and abstraction to its apex. The blue area with black stripes is no longer recognizable as upholstery, but functions instead as an abstract patterned ground. Similarly, the plant has been condensed into a curving green form, with only the most elusive suggestion of leaves. A palpable suggestion of the model’s physical presence remains in the provocatively spread legs (a posture of abandon that contrasts, intriguingly, with the rather modest gesture of the arms and shoulders). “This woman projects the strongest erotic presence of the four,” Flam has declared (ibid., p. 141). Yet the body is seen now from a much less specific viewpoint, and once again, the figure is faceless, removed from the realm of the everyday and transformed into part of the decorative architecture of the canvas. “With its increasing emphasis on decorative patterning, abstracted figures, and bold chromatic harmonies,” Flam has concluded, “this painting clearly foreshadows the most transcendent and abstracted of all his seated nudes–those in the blue cutouts of 1952” (ibid., p. 141).
Artist Photo Henri Matisse, 1935. Photograph by Lydia Delectorskaya. BARCODE: 28864189
Artist Photo Lydia Delectorskaya, 1935. Photograph by Matisse. BARCODE: 28864196
Fig. A Henri Matisse, Grand nu couché (Nu rose), 1935. The Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Collection. BARCODE: 24751834_dhr
Fig. B Henri Matisse, Odalisque au tambourin, 1926. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE: art309063_dhr
Fig. C Henri Matisse, Nu assis au feuillage, esquisse, 1936. Musée Matisse, Nice. BARCODE: nyrpheea
Fig. D Henri Matisse, Femme nue drapée, 1936. Tate, London. BARCODE: 28864127
Fig. E Henri Matisse, Nu bleu (II), 1952. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris. BARCODE: art158093_dhr
Nu assis, fond bleu
Oil on canvas
Property from a Distinguished European Collection
Signed and dated ‘Henri Matisse 36’ (lower left) and signed again 'Henri Matisse' (lower right)
Henri Matisse , 1930s, Paintings, oil, France, Modern, figures
Paris, Galerie Paul Rosenberg and London, Rosenberg & Helft, Ltd., Oeuvres récentes de Henri Matisse, June-July 1937, no. 4 (dated 1937).
Paris, Grand Palais, Henri Matisse: Exposition du centenaire, April-September 1970, no. 187bis.
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
18 1/8 x 15 in. (46 x 38.1 cm.)
P. Schneider, Matisse, London, 1984, p. 641 (illustrated in color).
L. Delectorskaya, With Apparent Ease–Henri Matisse: Paintings from 1935-1939, Paris, 1988, p. 204 (illustrated in color; titled Nu au fauteuil, fond bleu, cheveux jaunes).
G.-P. and M. Dauberville, Matisse, Paris, 1995, vol. II, p. 1444, no. 732 (illustrated, p. 1346).
D. Aagesen and R. Rabinow, Matisse: In Search of True Painting, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2012, p. 140, no. 74 (illustrated in color; titled Nude in Armchair, Blue Ground).
Galerie Paul Rosenberg, Paris (acquired from the artist, 1937).
Anon. sale, Bukowski, Stockholm, 4 April 1968, lot 177.
Acquired at the above sale by the family of the present owner.