Odalisques jouant aux dames is a powerful and bold rendering of the theme of odalisques, one of the most spectacular and fascinating series of Matisse's œuvre. Painted while the artist was living in Nice and during what is considered his most accomplished period as a colourist, the composition combines the most important elements of his painting: a rich, bold palette developed during the Fauve years, a fascination with texture and patterns, and the exotic, orientalist setting. Odalisques jouant aux dames belongs to his celebrated series of works executed in the 1920s, showing nudes or female figures in exotic garments depicted in lush interiors. In 1928 Matisse painted several compositions in which these figures are shown seated or reclining around a checkerboard, whose black-and-white pattern stands in contrast with the more rounded shapes of the females and their overall setting (figs. 1 & 2).
In the present work, Matisse depicted two female figures: one seated, dressed in colourful exotic clothes, seductively turned to face the viewer rather than her companion; the other is nude, languorously reclining on a sofa with an air of abandon. Like most of his paintings from this period, the exotic costume and lavishly ornamented interior of this work evoke his travels in Morocco in 1912-13, which provided Matisse with a life-long source of inspiration. The artist himself once proclaimed about this subject: 'The odalisques were the bounty of a happy nostalgia, a lovely, vivid dream, and the almost ecstatic, enchanted days and nights of the Moroccan climate. I felt an irresistible need to express that ecstasy, that divine unconcern, in corresponding colored rhythms, rhythms of sunny and lavish figures and color' (H. Matisse, quoted in Jack Flam (ed.), Matisse: A Retrospective, New York, 1988, p. 230).
Odalisques jouant aux dames reveals the extent of Matisse's enthralment with fabrics and patterns, which are abundantly present in all parts of the work, including the woman's costume, curtains and wallpapers and the painted lamp. Matisse transformed his studio in Nice with paintings, mirrors, curtains and decorative screens, creating theatrical settings in which to depict his models. Fascinated by textile decoration and ornamentation, the artist always chose colourful, ornate motifs to serve as a backdrop to his figure paintings. Since his early interiors, such as the celebrated Harmonie rouge of 1908, Matisse demonstrated a delight in depicting the arabesques and floral motifs appearing on curtains, wallpapers and table-cloths, often transforming the entire painting surface into a continuous pattern.
Furthermore, he owned a number of colourful textiles and garments that his models would wear. As Hilary Spurling wrote: 'Matisse built up a costume wardrobe in the early 1920s more or less at random, starting with a consignment of Spanish shawls, experimenting with odds and ends collected in Morocco or from a Lebanese carpet-dealer in Paris, adding in the couture clothes made each season for his wife and daughter [...]. He seems to have begun improvising costumes in much the same way as he constructed settings to suit the requirements of each successive picture after a fancy-dress ball hosted in 1921 by Renoir's son Jean [...]. From now on his textile library expanded to include dressing-up chests filled with Moroccan jackets, robes, blouses, boleros, caps and scarves, from which his models (often film extras) could be kitted out in outfits distantly descended – like Baksts's ballet, and a whole series of films using Nice locations in the 1920s as a substitute for the mysterious East – from the French painterly tradition of orientalisation' (H. Spurling in Matisse. His Art and His Textiles (exhibition catalogue), Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, pp. 28-29).
Indeed, the orientalist-inspired figure of the odalisque was one that had long been celebrated in the history of art, most famously in the 19th century by painters such as Delacroix (fig. 3) and Gêrome. While Picasso's response to this tradition resulted in his series of Femmes d'Algiers of 1955 (fig. 4), Matisse applied his own highly personal approach to his interpretation of this subject, surrounding the figure with the rich textiles and personal affects of his studio. Writing about this series of Odalisques, Elizabeth Cowling commented: 'In painting his make-believe harem scenes – nothing could be less authentic than the heteroclite mix of fabrics, costumes, furniture and bric-a-brac – Matisse sought to personalise and modernise the hackneyed Orientalist subjects which has first come into vogue during the Romantic period. Delacroix's sumptuous Women of Algiers was of paramount importance to this enterprise and in the sum total of the Nice odalisque paintings numerous echoes of it can be heard' (E. Cowling, Matisse Picasso (exhibition catalogue), Tate Modern, London, 2002, p. 221).
With its atmosphere of relaxation and abandon, the composition as a whole brilliantly recreates the intoxicating atmosphere of the harem which Matisse recreated within the confines of his studio. As Jack Cowart observed: 'these striking paintings are the fullest realization of Matisse's thesis on pattern, decoration and the odalisque placed in his "brewing tension." He surely enjoyed the deceptive game he played with this conflict between reality, appearance, and art, and dreaming and waking. These paintings are fantasies in the best sense of the word, but for the sake of denying such an accusation, he said: "I do odalisques in order to paint nudes. But how does one paint nudes without their being artificial? Because I know that odalisques exist, I was in Morocco. I have seen some"' (J. Coward, Henri Matisse, The Early Years in Nice 1916-1930 (exhibition catalogue), The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1986-87, p. 37).
Fig. 1, Henri Matisse, Odalisque assise, 1928, oil on canvas, The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore 143
fig. 2, Henri Matisse, Deux Odalisques, 1928, oil on canvas, Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Fig. 3, Eugène Delacroix, Les Femmes d'Alger, 1834, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris
Fig. 4, Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d'Alger, 1955, oil on canvas. Sold: Sotheby's, New York, 3rd May 2005.
Fig. 5, Matisse drawing the model Zita as Odalisque, Nice, 1928
Oil on canvas
Paris, Galerie George Petit, Henri Matisse, 1931, no. 135
Philadelphia, Museum of Art, Henri Matisse, Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, 1948, no. 72, illustrated in the catalogue
Southampton, Massachusetts, Smith College Museum of Art, Some Paintings from Alumnae Collections, 1948
New York, Paul Rosenberg & Co., Henri Matisse, 1954, no. 13, illustrated in the catalogue
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., The Colin Collection: Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture, 1960, no. 19, illustrated in the catalogue
London, Hayward Gallery, Matisse, 1968, no. 99, illustrated in the catalogue
New York, Acquavella Galleries, Inc., Henri Matisse, 1973, no. 41, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
50 by 65cm. 19 5/8 by 25 5/8 in.
The Arts, January 1930, illustrated p. 342
Van Day Trucx, 'How to Frame and Hang your Pictures', in House & Garden, December 1940, illustrated p. 130
Gaston Diehl, Henri Matisse, Paris, 1954, p. 82
Jacques Lassaigne, Matisse, Paris, 1959, illustrated in colour p. 102
Mario Luzi & Massimo Carrà, L'Opera di Matisse dalla rivolta 'fauve' all'intimismo, 1904-1928, Milan, 1971, no. 454, illustrated p. 104
Guy-Patrice & Michel Dauberville, Matisse, Paris, 1995, vol. I, no. 685, illustrated p. 1291
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris
Valentine Gallery, New York
Stephen C. Clark, New York
Mr & Mrs Ralph F. Colin, New York
Private Collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner