The authenticity of this work has been confirmed by Wanda de Guébriant.
“Portraiture is an art for the most unique of people. It demands specific gifts of the artist and the possibility of the painter to identify almost completely with his model. The painter must let go of all preconceived ideas when he is in front of his model. He must allow everything to come to his mind, just as in a landscape painting all the smells of the landscape come to him; those of the earth and the flowers combined with the playful clouds, the movements of the trees and the different noises of the countryside.”
Henri Matisse, 1954
In collaboration with the editors, Louis Aragon, Fernand Mourlot and Tériade, Henri Matisse embarked on several projects of illustrating literary works, one of which was Les Fleurs du Mal (1944-47) by Charles Baudelaire. Inspired by a photograph from the 19th century, this charcoal portrait of Charles Baudelaire was drawn in Vence in 1944 when Matisse was starting work on the illustrations for Les Fleurs du Mal. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, drawing held a central place in Matisse’s art and notably saw him develop the stump technique. He used smudging and erasing to create texture and to accentuate the rugged aspect of the charcoal, giving his portraits a strong presence. This technique liberated Matisse from the rigours of an exact representation, creating a looser style, which becomes the expression of a feeling. In his article Notes from a painter on his drawing published in 1939, Matisse described the advantages of this medium that allowed him to “consider the character of the model at the same time as the human expression, the quality of the ambient light, the atmosphere and everything that can be expressed by the drawing” (cited in John Elderfield, The Drawings of Henri Matisse, London, 1984, p.84).
Matisse was absorbed by his work on paper. Breaking away from the conventions of the subject, the format and the commissioners, drawing becomes a space of pure freedom. However, it is interesting to note that Matisse approached drawing in the same way he did painting. Just as drawing was no longer, strictly speaking, confined to the field of study, at the same time, the portrait genre was receiving its own well-deserved acclaim.
As for the reflection on the figure, Matisse identified with the figure of the poet on an extremely modern - if not contemporary – principle; the identification of the artist in his art. He writes: “Every one of these drawings, in my opinion, offers a specific contribution, which comes from the artist’s comprehension of the subject, to the extent that he wholly identifies with his subject, so that the essential truth in question constitutes the drawing. It is not altered in any way by the conditions of execution of this drawing; on the contrary, the truth is expressed by the suppleness of the lines and the artist’s freedom, yielding to the demands of the composition, which becomes more nuanced and invigorated, as a result of the artist’s state of mind. Exactitude is not the truth" (Vence, May 1947, preface to the Henri Matisse exhibition, drawings, Liège, 1947).
A sensual example of the maturity of Matisse’s style, created with a combination of simple, delicate lines and masterful nuances of shade and trembling light, this portrait of Baudelaire is a manifesto of modernity.