- Henri Matisse
- Boléro violet
- signed Henri Matisse and dated 37 (lower left)
- oil on canvas
- 55 by 33cm.
- 21 5/8 by 13in.
Aldus C. Higgins, Worcester, Massachusetts (acquired from the above on 19th October 1937)
Private Collection, U.S.A. (acquired by descent from the above. Sold: Christie’s, New York, 15th May 1990, lot 61)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner
Gaston Diehl, Matisse, Paris, 1967, illustrated p. 17
Lydia Delectorskaya, … l’apparente facilité… Henri Matisse. Peintures de 1935-1939, Paris, 1986, illustrated p. 219
Guy-Patrice & Michel Dauberville, Matisse, Paris, 1995, vol. II, no. 752, illustrated p. 1366 (titled Femme brune)
The model in the painting is Princess Hélène Galitzine, daughter of Russian aristocrat Prince Serge Galitzine and Helene Ghijitzky. Not yet eighteen years-old when Matisse created Boléro violet, her strikingly dark hair provided a perfect foil to Lydia Delectorskaya’s fair colouration. Throughout 1937 Hélène was one of Matisse’s principal models and posed for a number of important works, often alongside her cousin Delectorskaya. The pair continued to model together for the next couple of years, and posed for the monumental La musique in 1939 (fig. 1). In the same year he completed La musique, Matisse made a statement recognising the importance of his models: ‘The emotional interest aroused in me by them does not appear particularly in the representation of their bodies, but often rather in the lines or the special values distributed over the whole canvas or paper, which form its complete orchestration, its architecture… It is perhaps sublimated sensual pleasure’ (H. Matisse, quoted in Henri Matisse. Figure Color Space (exhibition catalogue), Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 2005, p. 40).
Throughout his life, Matisse approached clothing and textiles with the keen eye of a collector. Costumes of all descriptions could be found in numerous chests about his house and studio. From Romanian peasant clothing to Parisian ball gowns, Matisse’s appetite for clothing was enormous. He commissioned the celebrated designer Paul Poiret’s sister to make dresses for his wife and daughter, and on one occasion in 1938, he spent a day in the area around the rue de la Boëtie in Paris buying several items of haute couture at the spring sales. By the time he moved to his new apartment in the old Excelsior-Regina Palace Hotel in Cimiez in 1939, his collection of costumes required a whole room to store them. As Hilary Spurling has noted: ‘Moroccan jackets, robes, blouses, boleros, caps and scarves, from which his models could be kitted out in outfits distantly descended - like Bakst's ballet, and a whole series of films using Nice locations in the 1920s as a substitute for the mysterious East - from the French painterly tradition of orientalisation’ (H. Spurling, Matisse: His Art and his Textiles (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005, p. 29).
According to Lydia Delectorskaya in 1937 Matisse had become particularly fascinated with a set of Romanian blouses which he rediscovered amongst his studio props. These blouses had been a gift from the Romanian painter Theodor Pallady, who regularly corresponded with Matisse, discussing their art and in particular the important role of its more decorative aspects. Hélène Galitzine was photographed by the artist wearing one of these blouses (fig. 2), and he subsequently painted a number of works - using other models - that used the geometric oak-leaf embroidery as the central decorative motif. Similarly, Matisse produced several improvisations on the decorative qualities of a richly hued jacket decorated with elaborate gold embroidery (fig. 3). Matisse had used this coat in an earlier oil (fig. 4), and echoes of its orientalist charm are reawakened in his paintings in the late 1930s.
In a discussion concerning his working methods with the poet Tériade, which was later published in 1937, Matisse wrote: ‘In my latest paintings, I united the acquisitions of the last twenty years to my essential core, to my very essence. […] The reaction of each stage is as important as the subject. For this reaction comes from me and not from the subject. It is from the basis of my interpretation that I continually react until my work comes into harmony with me... At each stage, I reach a balance, a conclusion. At the next sitting, if I find there is a weakness in the whole, I make my way back into the picture by means of the weakness - I re-enter through the breach-end, I reconceive the whole. Thus everything becomes fluid again and as each element is only one of the component forces (as in an orchestration), the whole can be changed in appearance but the feeling sought still remains the same. A black could very well replace a blue, since basically the expression derives from the relationships. One is not bound to a blue, to a green or to a red, whose timbres can be introverted or replaced if the feeling so dictates… At the final stage the painter finds himself freed and his emotion exists complete in his work' (quoted in Jack Flam (ed.), Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 123).
Discussing Matisse’s portraits of the mid-1930s, John Elderfield wrote: ‘his model is shown in decorative costumes – a striped Persian coat [fig. 5], 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, p. 357). Boléro violet is an extraordinary example of Matisse’s constantly evolving perception of form and colour. The paintings of the late 1930s are the supreme outcome of decades of improvisation on these decorative elements, wherein contrasting patterns and colours of the present work harmonise, and the features of the young Hélène are transfigured into the epitome of timeless elegance.
The first owner of the present work was Aldus Chapin Higgins of Worcester, Massachusetts. Higgins acquired Boléro violet from Paul Rosenberg’s Paris exhibition of Matisse’s recent works in 1937 which subsequently travelled to London. The previous year Rosenberg persuaded Matisse to sign a three year contract, thus becoming his principal dealer. These exhibitions in Paris and London, held for the next few years, helped the artist to sell directly to a large number of collectors from America and Europe. Aldus C. Higgins was a businessman who spent his entire career with his family’s firm, the Norton Emery Wheel Company. He also invented a water-cooled electric furnace which won the John Scott medal for exceptional achievement in mechanical arts in 1914. Higgins also commissioned the architect Grosvenor Atterbury to build him a house modelled on Compton Wyngates, the Elizabethan seat of the Marquesses of Northampton. The house was completed in 1923, and Higgins and his wife, Mary, lived there until their deaths when it was given to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, of which his family had been tremendously supportive. Aldus and Mary Higgins were avid collectors of art, and during trips to Europe purchased many wonderful paintings including the magnificent Fauve canvas, L’Oliviers by Georges Braque and Georges Rouault’s Coucher du soleil which were both eventually bequeathed to the Worcester Art Museum. Boléro violet remained in Higgins' family possession until 1990, when it was acquired by the present owner.