NEW YORK - “My models, human figures, are never just ‘extras’ in an interior,” Henri Matisse once said. “They are the principal theme in my work.” One of the most significant for him was Henriette Darricarrère, his main model from 1920–27. Tall and dark-haired, Henriette caught the painter’s eye while performing as a ballerina in a film studio near Nice when she was nineteen. Drawn to her sculptural dancer’s physique, Matisse asked her to pose for him, and the two developed a close rapport. She was also friendly with the artist’s daughter, Marguerite and his wife, Amélie, and letters suggest she was considered part of the family. Henriette became an essential part of managing the artist’s busy studio, and all the while she continued to pose for him, sometimes working six days a week, ten hours a day (the artist was notoriously demanding of his models).
Despite her purported modesty, she was often costumed as an odalisque in the filmy Moroccan blouses and billowing harem pants that Matisse had collected on trips to Morocco. Henriette is also depicted during moments of creative activity. She played piano and violin; in La Femme en jaune (1923) she holds sheet music, and in a drawing of the same year, she is shown playing the piano.
When Henriette quit performing because of severe stage fright, Matisse taught her to paint and encouraged her talent. She appears at an easel in La Séance du matin (1924), working on a composition as morning light streams through the studio window. According to one account, when Henriette abruptly left the Matisse household to get married, the painter never forgave her.