Interior, Flowers and Parakeets shows Matisse’s apartment on the place Charles-Félix in Nice, which he occupied from 1921 to 1938. This sumptuous still life provides a portrait of Matisse’s taste as a collector of decorative objects that are often vibrantly colored, patterned, and textured. Throughout his career, Matisse filled his studio with fabrics, rugs, and pottery. These objets d’art found their way into many of his interiors painted in Nice and provided a view into the rich and exotic world of his living quarters. This painting, acquired by Etta Cone in 1925, is thought to have been one of her favorite works.
Matisse explored his interest in other cultures by visiting the Moorish cities of southern Spain in 1910 and Morocco in 1912. On each visit, Matisse collected tapestries, clothing, and ornaments, which he used to transform his apartment into a setting that emulated the Moroccan interiors visited and imagined by the artist. He placed models against these dramatic backdrops like actresses on a stage. Here the model plays the part of an odalisque, a female servant or member of a harem. The French word odalisque is derived from the Turkish word oda (room), the domestic domain of the odalisque.
Lydia Delectorskaya, Matisse’s Russian studio assistant and muse, was the model for Purple Robe and Anemones. Lydia sits quietly amid a wild explosion of color and line, as Matisse balances competing patterns and contours of warm and cool tones. The painting is alive with energy, as the lines in her robe echo the patterns on the wall behind her and the jug in the foreground. In some areas of the composition, such as in the purple robe, the artist uses a scraping technique to form stripes. In other parts, such as the decorative elements of the table in the foreground, he uses paint to describe the pattern. Matisse was apparently very fond of this elegant purple robe, since he made several paintings in which a model wears it in a similar setting. Throughout his life, Matisse filled his studio with lush flowers, North African furnishings, and exotic fabrics. He delighted in including these elements in his paintings, using them to evoke a mood of ease and voluptuousness.
Produced in February, 1940, this work is a wonderful example of the fluid paintings of Matisse’s late period. The model, dressed in an elegantly striped robe, looks out directly at the viewer, seemingly unaware of the cacophony of colorful flowers and foliage that surrounds her. Matisse invented a composition that is delicately balanced between realism and abstraction.
In 1943, Matisse moved to the hill town of Vence to escape the wartime threat of bombardment along the coast at Nice. Although he continued to paint during his years there, he also began to work with paper cutouts since health problems made it difficult for him to stand for long periods of time. Two Girls, Red and Green Background is one of a series of small canvases Matisse produced in Vence as part of his last, glorious outburst of painting. The intricate details of his Nice interiors have been replaced in this painting by a new freedom in his brushwork and drawing, as well as an increased boldness in his color harmonies.
Large Seated Nude was inspired by a plaster copy of Michelangelo’s oversized and heavily-muscled figure of Night and other figures in the Medici Chapel in Florence. The actual model for the sculpture, however, was a young French dancer named Henriette Darricarrère. Henriette appears frequently in Matisse’s work, posing in a comfortable armchair in the artist’s studio.
Matisse’s innovation in this sculpture was to remove the supporting chair. This transforms what had been an easy relaxed pose into a surprisingly strained posture. The figure leans back into space, surveying her spectators with detached calm, yet maintains a nearly impossible pose supported only by her abdominal muscles. The upper body twists toward the front at a most unlikely angle, but fails to fully align with the base on which she sits. This incomplete turn of the body projects the internal tension of the figure’s anatomy outward into the surrounding architectural space.
In 1935, Matisse sent Etta Cone a sequence of twenty-two photographs that record six months worth of progress on this painting, documenting how he went back and forth between realism and abstraction as he worked out the composition. With so much knowledge of the work’s creation, Etta could not resist it; she purchased the painting the next year. What had started as a somewhat conventional nude reclining in an interior with a chair and vase of flowers beyond had become a stylized masterpiece of geometry, abstracted form, and flat areas of color. The figure is barely contained within the boundaries of the canvas, as she languorously reclines on the checkerboard pattern.
Matisse pinned pieces of colored paper to the canvas to work on this composition, a practice that prefigured his exploration with paper cutouts in the following decades. Numerous pinholes are still apparent in the painting today and many can be seen in the figure’s torso and hip area.
In this bold work, the floral patterns play across the surface of the painting, seemingly contradicting the traditional concepts of foreground and background. The real dahlias in the vase spread out across the width of the painting, merging with the flowers on the boldly decorated wallpaper behind. On the table, Matisse also includes a still-life motif of two peaches and a glass of water, familiar from The Pewter Jug. The empty chair and open book suggest that someone may have just stepped away, although Matisse has so compressed the objects against the wall that there would have been little space for anyone to sit.
Throughout his career, Matisse explored still life both in its purest form and as an element in larger compositions. Often portraying his models in interior settings, he frequently included an arrangement of fruit or flowers in a vase, juxtaposing patterns and contours in a perfect fusion of line and color.
In this painting, Matisse has posed Henriette Darricarrère at the window of the studio, looking down at the buildings beyond the Nice promenade. Throughout his career, Matisse used models to provide inspiration for his art. He often developed close relationships with them and depended on them for extended periods of time. Their individual personalities and interests contributed greatly to the works in which they appear.
Although this sculpture represents a figure at rest, its looping, intertwined limbs suggest the smooth, rhythmical movements of a dance. The Serpentine is an embodiment of the fluid arabesque lines which characterize Matisse’s paintings and sculpture. The sinuous effect depends in large part on the existence of negative, or open, space trapped between the solid forms of arms, legs, torso, and tree stump. The artist’s immediate source for this sculpture was a contemporary magazine photograph of a model. Photographs of Matisse at work on The Serpentine show, in its early stages, that the clay figure retained the heaviness of the model in the photograph. As work progressed, Matisse thinned the limbs so “the movement would be completely comprehensible from all points of view”.
“Colors have a beauty of their own which must be preserved, as one strikes to preserve pure tones in music. It is a question of organization and construction that is sensitive to maintaining this beautiful freshness of color….What counts most with color are relationships….No doubt there are a thousand different ways of working with color. But when one composes with it, like a musician with harmonies, it is simply a question of emphasizing the differences.” – Henri Matisse
Matisse painted women in interiors throughout the 1920s, but The Yellow Dress can be seen as a major change in his style. The painting combines the familiar elements of the Nice works – patterned floors and walls, shuttered windows – with an assertively monumental pose and central position for the figure.
Etta Cone purchased this work in 1932. When she went to Matisse’s studio the following year on one of her regular trips to Paris, he had no canvases to offer her because he was busy with other projects. However, he did not disappoint her. On her arrival, she recalled: “He [Matisse] said, ‘I have a surprise for you’ & presently I turned & there sat the model in the yellow taffeta dress with the large yellow hat on, just in front of the window – the exact reproduction of my latest painting. His bed-room (which is his studio when he is well) was the scene of this picture. Needless to say I was thrilled.”
Music was a lifelong love for Matisse, and he briefly considered pursuing a career as a musician. After taking violin lessons in his youth, he continued to play the instrument, practicing two hours a day into his mature years. He often included musical themes in his paintings. Etta Cone was herself an accomplished amateur musician, and she bought a number of images with musical motifs, including this one, throughout her collecting career.
In the spring of 1921 Matisse began a series of paintings that depict the annual parade of flower-decorated floats and marching bands in Nice, a celebration that marked the change in season from winter to spring. In this composition, Marguerite Matisse (the artist’s daughter) and Henriette Darricarrère pose in their winter coats on the balcony of the artist’s studio as they watch the parade pass by. The two women are gazing into a distant area that is out of the viewer’s sight, creating a sense of mystery. Twenty years later, Matisse described the distraction of living in Nice during the annual flower festival: “When I was living in the Hôtel de la Mediterranée, the Battle of the Flowers was almost a torture for me. All that music, the floats and the laughter on the Promenade.”
In this charming landscape, Henriette Darricarrère, Matisse’s favorite model during the 1920s, posed as an artist at her easel. Henriette was a talented dancer, and Matisse encouraged her to pursue her musical and artistic training. He often depicted her playing an instrument or standing behind an easel. Here she is studiously working on a landscape of her own, dwarfed by the large olive trees above her that bend into decorative arabesques.
In 1920, Matisse traveled to Étretat, a fishing village in Normandy set on a short stretch of beach between cliffs that look across the Channel to England. The landscape in Étretat features three spectacular, naturally formed arches that stand near the cliffs. This motif is probably best known in the work of Claude Monet, who painted there in the 1860s and returned in the 1880s. In the summer of 1920 Matisse created his own group of images of Étretat and discovered a new range of stimulating subjects.
The focal point of this ambitious still life is a pewter jug that appears in a number of Matisse’s paintings, including Purple Robe with Anemones (1937), also in the exhibition. “I have worked all my life before the same objects,” he admitted in 1952, “The object is an actor: a good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a different role in ten different pictures.” In this work the pewter jug links the carefully-rendered still life in the foreground, consisting of a scalloped ceramic dish, glass, and fruit, with the more generalized and curvilinear drapery in the background.
While living in Toulouse with his wife’s family before and after the birth of their son Jean in 1899, Matisse painted a series of still lifes that became increasingly bold in their use of vivid, impressionistic colors. In this painting, he takes a traditional still-life composition and modernizes it through the use of contrasting colors and intricately patterned brushstrokes.
In a related work, Still Life with Oranges, the artist takes the same arrangement to a new level with broad areas of bright color, exposed portions of raw canvas, and a general flattening of the space. These two still lifes, which are roughly the same size, may be the earliest pair of paintings in which Matisse consciously produced varying images of the same motif, a concept that allowed him to experiment freely with different elements of the same composition.
In Arabesque of 1924, Matisse tried something new in his approach to printmaking by combining the linear and tonal modes of lithography. First he drew the linear aspects, nearly subsuming the model in the profusion of decorative details on the wall, in the fabric covering the chair, and on the model’s blouse. Then he modulated the effects of light by applying patches of shade with the side of a crayon, just as he would brush on areas of color in a painting.
This densely worked lithograph casts the body as a highly volumetric form viewed against the vaguest background. Matisse depicted this female body as an impersonal yet eroticized object: faceless, hairless, perfectly smooth, and evenly rounded. The Large Nude stands alone in what is otherwise a clear chronological sequence of his printmaking. It is strikingly abstract and unlike any other work made by Matisse during these years. Up until this point, Matisse made transfer lithographs by drawing on paper, then transferring the image to the lithographic stone. Here, for the first time, Matisse chose to work directly on the lithographic stone so that he was able to return to the image to make revisions, adding and taking away, literally modeling the figure as if it were a sculpture.
This isolated experiment in printmaking is best understood in terms of the artist’s desire to pursue alternative approaches to drawing in the process of exploring an idea; the strong highlights and shadows and the distorted shapes of this image anticipate the artist’s most experimental works made just before and during World War I.
Just as Rembrandt inspired Matisse’s first self-portrait print made between 1900 and 1903, the Dutch artist’s lifelong practice of making self-portraits may have been the catalyst for Matisse’s evolving series that began in the mid-1930s and continued until his death in 1954. His self-portraits may be a reflection of periods of re-examination of the direction of his art. In 1945 he illustrated his essay “Exactitude is not Truth,” a defense of a claim his art was too facile, with a series of drawings reproduced with the text. In a “word portrait” written in the third person he portrayed “the reserve with which he faces [life] and which keeps him from an uncontrolled surrender to it,” and concluded, “It is indeed the same man, one who remains an attentive spectator of life and of himself.”
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