Impressionist & Modern Art

When Mary Met Matisse

By Sotheby's

As a rare portrait by Henri Matisse is offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 19 June, we look back at the fond friendship between the artist and his sitter, Mary Hutchinson – one of the most enigmatic figures of the Bloomsbury Group.

"I think he’s delightful," observed Mary Hutchinson of Henri Matisse, for whom she sat in the hot summer of 1936. "He lives at the top of a house in Montparnasse – all windows." Commissioned by Mary’s husband, the celebrated barrister St John Hutchinson, Portrait of Mrs Hutchinson captures the Bloomsbury author and socialite loosely wrapped in a Charles James blouse. Caught in a breezy mood – head on hand, eyes diverted, the ghost of a smirk – she was put on paper in a haze of charcoal.

The sitting was held in the artist’s Paris studio which Matisse was gradually turning into a giant domestic aviary of exotic birds. “You can imagine my state of mind – because there is no one I would rather be drawn by,” Mary wrote excitedly to her son Jeremy (who would later also become a famous QC, helping defend Penguin Books during the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial in 1960). 

"Matisse told me all about tropical climates: how the sun was at midday always and how everyone died of boredom," Mary told Jeremy. "He has a square face and spectacles behind which bright strong eyes smile." She found him amusing, natural and mischievous. Matisse completed two portraits of her: he kept one, she the other.


Mary Hutchinson was used to cultural circles: she was the cousin of writer Lytton Strachey and the lover of art critic Clive Bell. She was painted by Clive’s wife, Vanessa Bell – "perfectly hideous" she said of the portrait – and modelled for the Russian artist Boris Anrep, for a mosaic which now decorates the entrance hall of the National Gallery. And then there were shimmering shots of her – again in repose – by her friend Cecil Beaton

But Matisse was special – one of his Nice interiors was treasured in the Hutchinson’s Regents Park home. And so when he visited London in 1937, Mary hosted a lunch party in his honour. "It has been Matisse week – very enjoyable indeed," she told Jeremy. She even drove the artist to London Zoo so he could see the butterfly house: "I had to write “Butterflies” on a piece of paper so that he could show it to anyone if he lost his way." 

Matisse had such a good time in London that he told Mary that he would be back – that the distance had seemed little more than crossing the Seine – but he was fated never to return to England.

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