When Matisse returned to easel painting in the mid-1930s after working on the Barnes murals, he painted a series of female nudes whose sculptural forms filled the canvas. Increasingly, however, Matisse moved towards depicting his model clothed in decorative costumes—striped Persian gowns, elaborate dresses, embroidered blouses—blending the figure with its setting and amalgamating multiple decorative elements into the construction of the composition. In October 1939, at the outbreak of the war, Matisse and his favorite model Lydia Delectorskaya, who had recently assumed a formal position as the artist’s secretary, returned to Nice and again took over the grand rooms at the Hotel Régina which became both his home and studio. In spite of the troubles and uncertainties of the war, Matisse continued to paint canvases exuding a fluid, transparent and joyous quality. None of these works bear any reference to the outside world, concentrating instead on the enclosed and intimate world of the artist’s rooms and study.
Matisse’s apparent inward focus during this time had numerous motivations. His wife Amélie has filed for a legal separation in the first months of 1939, cutting off communication and casting a shadow on relations between Matisse and his children. An old internal complaint caused the artist intense amounts of physical pain throughout the ensuing months which accompanied him on his travels from Paris to the South of France and various points between, escalating to a dramatic evacuation from a Nice-area hospital to specialists in Lyon who almost immediately conducted surgeries on Matisse’s internal organs. The recovery—and its ensuing setbacks—lasted for months. For the entire first half of 1941, Matisse did not paint and at times could not even sketch. The artist’s physical deterioration seemed to mirror the political situation in Europe at this time. Paris fell to the Germans in the summer of 1940; shortly after their occupation Matisse wrote to his daughter saying “No one could have foreseen what has happened…. Since we can do nothing, let’s say not more about it! That will help us to think of it as little as possible, which is essential, so as not to be annihilated…. Each one of us must find his own way to limit the moral shock of this catastrophe. For myself... in order to prevent an avalanche overwhelming me, I’m trying to distract myself from it as far as possible by clinging to the idea of the future work I could still do, if I don’t let my self be destroyed” (quoted in H. Spurling, Matisse the Master, A Life of Henri Matisse, The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, New York, 2005, p. 393).
Beginning in 1942, Matisse embarked on a revolutionary campaign in his art, moving away from the extraneous details that characterized his depictions of Odalisqes in the 1920s and turning his focus more exclusively towards the essential components of form and color. This shift can be seen in his early 1942 works Danseuse dans le fauteuil, sol en damier and Odalisque au fauteuil noir. In these paintings, Matisse maintains the vibrant colors and vision of luxurious feminine comfort from his earlier works but approaches his subjects with a new bold simplicity (see figs. 1 and 2). Matisse continues this striking, lively depiction of the sensuous female form in the fall of 1942 with Nu allongé, à la robe arabe (Jeune Fille couché). The present work encapsulates this new direction of his art, with its sharp tonal color contrasts and confident, linear clarity. Along with Danseuse dans le fauteuil, sol en damier and Odalisque au fauteuil noir, Nu allongé establishes what Matisse called "the color of ideas" in his art. "I will now begin to paint with the same ardor as I have drawn," Matisse proclaimed in 1942, and the present canvas has much of the same vigor and spontaneity of his drawings (quoted in Matisse, A Second Life (exhibition catalogue), Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, 2005, p. 108). Matisse's highly stylized portrayal of the sensuous model ensconced on a divan makes no attempt at anatomical naturalism, prefacing the linear simplicity of the colorful cut-outs that would dominate his art in years to come.
Discussing Matisse's female portraits of this period, John Elderfield wrote: "His model is shown in decorative costumes—a striped Persian coat, a Rumanian blouse—and the decorativeness and the very construction of a costume and of a painting are offered as analogous. What developed were groups of paintings showing his model in similar or different poses, costumes and settings: a sequence of themes and variations that gained in mystery and intensity as it unfolded" (J. Elderfield in Henri Matisse, A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1992-93, p. 357). Indeed, like a musician composing variations on a given theme, Matisse constantly rearranged the pieces of furniture, decorative objects and plants in his studio, as well as his sitters' garments, tirelessly experimenting with his favorite theme and inventing new decorative combinations and painterly solutions, and creating one of the boldest and most life-affirming bodies of work in twentieth-century art.
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