Lot 14
  • 14

Henri Matisse

12,000,000 - 18,000,000 GBP
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  • Henri Matisse
  • La Leçon de piano
  • signed Henri Matisse (lower left)
  • oil on canvas
  • 65 by 81cm.
  • 25 5/8 by 31 7/8 in.


Georges Bernheim, Paris (acquired from the artist in 1924)

Marcel Kapferer, Paris (acquired in 1924)

Alex. Reid & Lefevre, London & Glasgow (acquired in 1926)

Royan Middleton, Aberdeen (acquired from the above in 1927)

Thence by descent to the present owners


Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Exposition Henri Matisse, 1924, no. 30

Paris, Chambre Syndicale de l’Anitquité et des Beaux-Arts, Première exposition des collectionneurs, organisée au profit de la Société des Amis du Luxembourg, 1924, no. 119 (titled Le Solfège)

Antwerp, Kunst van Heden, art français moderne, 1926, no. 10

Glasgow, McLellan Galleries, A Century of French Painting, 1927, no. 53 (as dating from circa 1920)

London, Alex. Reid & Lefevre, Exhibition of Works by Henri Matisse, 1927, no. 12 (as dating from 1921)

Paris, Galeries Georges Petit, Henri Matisse, 1931, no. 102, illustrated in the catalogue

Aberdeen, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Paintings from North-East Homes, 1951, no. 76

Edinburgh, An exhibition organised by the Arts Council of Scotland, 1954, no. 7

London, The Lefevre Gallery, Important XIX and XX Century Works of Art, 1983, no. 9, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Humlebæk, Louisiana Museet, Henri Matisse, 1985, no. 52 (exhibition catalogue published in Louisiana Revy, January 1985, illustrated in colour p. 40; as dating from 1921)

Aberdeen, Aberdeen Art Gallery, 12 French Masterpieces from a North East Collection, 1986, illustrated in the catalogue

Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice, 1916-1930, 1986-87, no. 128, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Aberdeen, Aberdeen Art Gallery, 2011-2015 (on loan)


Adolphe Basler, Henri Matisse, Leipzig, 1924, illustrated (titled Konzert)

Adolphe Basler, ‘Henri Matisse’, in Der Cicerone, vol. XVI, no. 21, November 1924, illustrated p. 1000 (titled Konzert)

Henry McBride, Matisse, New York, 1930, illustrated pl. 9

Albert C. Barnes & Violette de Mazia, The Art of Henri Matisse, New York & London, 1933, no. 144, illustrated p. 320

Giovanni Scheiwiller, Henri Matisse, Milan, 1933, illustrated pl. XXIV

René Huyghe, Histoire de l’art contemporain, Paris, 1935, fig. 129, illustrated p. 111

'Henri Matisse and the French Spirit in Modern Art', in The Studio, London, vol. CXVII, no. 551, February 1939, illustrated p. 53

Leo Swane, Henri Matisse, Stockholm, 1944, illustrated fig. 31

Les chefs d’œuvre des collections Françaises (exhibition catalogue), Musée de l’Orangerie des Tuileries, Paris, 1946, mentioned p. 20

Giovanni Scheiwiller, Henri Matisse, Milan, 1947, illustrated pl. XVII

Gaston Diehl, Henri Matisse, Paris, 1954, illustrated in colour pl. 93

‘Note e Commenti: Omaggio a Matisse’, in Emporium, January 1955, no. 721, vol. CXXI, illustrated p. 19

Gaston Diehl, Henri Matisse, Paris, 1958, illustrated pl. 93

Gaston Diehl, Henri Matisse, Paris, 1970, illustrated pl. 32

Mario Luzi & Massimo Carrà, L’opera di Matisse dalla rivolta ‘fauve’ all’intimismo, 1904-1928, Milan, 1971, no. 401, illustrated p. 102

Louis Aragon, Henri Matisse: a novel, London, 1972, vol. I, pl. XIV, illustrated in colour p. 134 (titled Henriette and Her Brothers)

Pierre Schneider, Massimo Carrà & Xavier Deryng, Tout l’œuvre peint de Matisse 1904-1928, Paris, 1982, no. 401, illustrated p. 102

Aberdeen Art Gallery (ed.), Gallery, July-August 1986, detail illustrated in colour on the front cover

Guy-Patrice & Michel Dauberville, Henri Matisse chez Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, 1998, vol. I, illustrated p. 241; vol. II, no. 606, illustrated p. 1188 (titled Enfants au piano)

Catalogue Note

Painted in 1923, La Leçon de piano is one of the finest interior compositions from Matisse’s early Nice period, combining his skills as a colourist in conveying the splendour of his Mediterranean studio with an intimate portrayal of his three young sitters. The vibrantly coloured and highly patterned fabrics that make up the interior have become synonymous with Matisse’s art from the 1920s, and in the present composition they are complemented by the piano on the left, while the composition is centred around the figures of Henriette Darricarrère, Matisse’s favourite model of this era, and her two younger brothers.


Matisse established a permanent residence at 1 Place Charles-Félix in Nice in 1921 (fig. 1) and his third-floor apartment and studio in this eighteenth-century building offered him magnificent views of both the town and the Promenade des Anglais along the sea front. Attracted to the rich atmosphere of this coastal town, the artist spent much of the subsequent decades here, producing some of the most iconic works of his career.


While in some of these works Matisse offers a glimpse of the resort and the sea beyond, often through a balcony or an open window, he also portrayed his models in a closed indoor setting. The intimacy of this arrangement allowed the artist to focus on the human form and to incorporate complex patterns into his compositions. La Leçon de piano is a beautiful example of Matisse’s Nice interiors, and displays the artist’s singular ability to capture his models in a natural pose, deeply absorbed in their activities.


This composition boasts all of the key elements of Matisse’s Nice period paintings, with its colourful patterning and gleaming white highlights. The artist created a powerful and dynamic composition by juxtaposing the straight lines of the piano, the door in the background and the two boys’ stripy shirts with the short, quick brushstrokes denoting decorative patterns of the red screen, the wallpaper and the carpet. The strong black-and-white pattern of the boys’ tunics is echoed in the keys of the piano. While in the companion painting Pianiste et joueurs de dames, now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (fig. 2), the two boys are depicted absorbed in their own game, in the present work one of Henriette’s brothers is depicted standing behind her, seemingly lost in her music, while the other sits in an armchair reading a book. Another musical reference is found in the top right corner where a small sketch of a violinist hangs on the wall.


Jack Cowart described Matisse’s studio at 1 Place Charles-Félix: ‘A densely and strangely patterned wallpaper and frescoed ceiling decorated the room. Matisse further amplified this by installing his paintings and drawings as well as mirrors, reproductions of Michelangelo drawings, and items from his own collection of ethnic masks, fabric hangings, and paintings, notably works of Courbet. Matisse now had large demountable frames that would support the selected decorative fabrics he used as backdrops. In effect, the artist had a portable theater in these spaces. In the larger room, with his sets, models, and costumes, he could focus toward the interior of the room’ (J. Cowart in Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice, 1916-1930 (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., pp. 30 & 32).


Matisse's models for the present composition were Henriette Darricarrère, who worked with the artist throughout his Nice period (fig. 4), and her two brothers, Paul and Jean. Matisse met Henriette in 1920, when she was nineteen years old, and over the following seven years she was Matisse’s primary model and would ‘incarnate the artistic and psychological atmosphere of these niçoises years, 1920 to 1927’ (ibid., p. 26). In Matisse’s studio at Place Charles-Félix, Henriette was depicted in a variety of roles, including playing the violin, reading, playing checkers and painting at an easel. As Jack Cowart pointed out, in these pictures ‘the model, who trained as a ballet dancer and painted and played the violin and piano, was not falsely staged but, rather, was involved in pursuits legitimate to her interests’ (ibid., pp. 33-34).


Cowart wrote about Henriette Darricarrère: ‘Older than her two brothers, she was, nonetheless, still a young woman when Matisse first saw her at the Studios de la Victorine performing as a ballerina before the camera. The artist arranged for her to begin modeling shortly thereafter; her family recounts that he encouraged her to continue her lessons in piano, violin, and ballet, also allowing her time to paint and attend musical and other social events in Nice. During her seven years of modeling, Henriette excelled at role-playing and had a theatrical presence that fueled the evolution of Matisse’s art. Earlier, Lorette and Antoinette had initiated the exotic odalisque fantasy, but it was Henriette whose personality seems to have been the most receptive. She adopted the subject roles more easily and could express the moods and the atmosphere of Matisse’s settings without losing her own presence or her strong appearance. Her distinctive physical features – a sculpturesque body and a finely detailed face with a beautiful profile – are evident in many of the artist’s paintings, sculptures, and works on paper’ (ibid., p. 27).


Discussing Matisse’s relationship with Henriette, his biographer Hilary Spurling wrote that the artist ‘picked her out initially for her innate dignity, her athlete’s carriage, the graceful way her head sat on her neck. Henriette was younger but steadier and less worldly than her predecessor, which meant she fitted in far more easily with the Matisses’ highly unconventional existence. She was a dancer and violinist, a trained musician with natural gifts as a painter, talents Matisse encouraged in her as in his own children. […] Henriette’s poise and fluidity, her regular features and oval face, her air of being at ease in her body, added up to a kind of physical perfection’ (H. Spurling, Matisse The Master, A Life of Henri Matisse, The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, New York, 2005, pp. 241-242).


Spurling further recounts that in the early years of Henriette’s modelling for Matisse the artist bought a second-hand piano and painted her playing it, with her two younger brothers. According to Spurling’s account, during this time Matisse’s own children were too busy and had lost interest in posing for their father, and the Darricarrère brothers were happy to be his models (ibid., pp. 270-271). Most other canvases from this series are now in major museum collections: in the picture now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Henriette’s brothers are depicted playing chess (fig. 2), while in two others - in the Kunstmuseum, Basel and Musée Matisse, Nice - Henriette at the piano is the only person occupying the elaborate interior (figs. 3 & 4).


One of the great sources of influence on Matisse’s art during this time was the painting of Renoir (fig. 5), who was Matisse’s neighbour in the south of France. The two artists met on several occasions and developed a warm friendship. Matisse first visited the ageing Renoir in 1917, and introduced him to his friends, family and collectors, as well as to a model Andrée Heuschling, who would sit for him during the last two years of his life. He continued to visit Renoir’s family after the artist’s death, and in 1920 wrote: ‘I examined Renoir’s paintings at leisure, and it helped me a lot’ (quoted in H. Spurling, op. cit., p. 248).


Like Renoir, Matisse delighted in depicting figures performing music in intimate settings, an important theme since the early years of his career. Henriette’s artistic and sensual side must have fascinated the artist, and reminded him of scenes of his own family playing music which was the subject of several earlier works (figs. 7 & 8). La Leçon de piano and its companion works form the last group of paintings in which Matisse explicitly depicted music making. Combining music and art, two of his main passions, they rank among the boldest and most life-affirming bodies of work in Matisse’s œuvre.