Eardley Knollys, London
Acquired from the above by the late owner by 1956
London, Grafton Galleries, Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition (re-arrangement), 1913, no. 50
Pierre Schneider, Matisse, London, 1984, illustrated in colour p. 101
Anna Gruetzner Robins, Modern Art in Britain 1910-1914, London, 1997, no. 24, listed p. 191
Pierre Schneider, Matisse, London, 2002, illustrated in colour p. 101
Walter Guadagnini, Matisse, Edison, 2004, illustrated in colour p. 113
Henri Matisse, 1909
The year 1909, when Matisse painted Nu au bord de la mer, marked an important moment in the artist’s career; he signed the first contract with the dealer Bernheim-Jeune and received a commission from the Russian industrialist and art collector Sergei Shchukin - who would become his major patron - to decorate his Moscow palace. Although during this period Matisse created a number of monumental masterpieces including La danse (1909), La musique (1910) and L’atelier rouge (1911), he also worked on smaller scale oils, such as the present work and Nu rose (fig. 1), both depicting the same model in a lush outdoor setting.
Nu au bord de la mer was painted at Cavalière on the Côte d’Azur, where Matisse and his family spent most of the summer of 1909. Writing about the summer events, Matisse’s biographer Hilary Spurling recounts: ‘By mid-June Matisse was back in the Midi, settling into the Villa Adam at Cavalière with his wife and their three children. This time he brought a real nymph with him. Her name was Loulou Brouty. She was a Parisian model with dark hair, neat catlike features, a compact dancer’s body and skin so tanned and glowing that, after her summer at Cavalière, Matisse’s pupils nicknamed her “the Italian sunset.” […] She posed for him standing, sitting or leaning on her hand under the pine trees on the foreshore. His brush swooped and darted round her body with apparently effortless confidence, trapping sunshine and shadow on small luminous canvases organised in pools and patches of unlikely colour. Matisse liberated painting at Cavalière in precisely the way he had described, before he left Paris, to the journalist from Les Nouvelles. These nude studies were crucial to “the long process of reflection and amalgamation” he had set himself in the spring when he went into training for the final version of Dance’ (H. Spurling, Matisse the Master, London, 2005, pp. 27 & 29).
While after 1906 many of the leading Fauve artists abandoned the ‘wild’ use of colour and embraced the influence of Cézanne, Matisse retained a bright palette as a cornerstone of his art and continued to paint figures in a landscape (fig. 2), thematically linked to his Fauve masterpieces Luxe, calme et volupté and Le bonheur de vivre. Walter Guadagnini wrote about the artist’s works from this period: ‘The series of paintings Matisse executed from 1909 to 1913 constitute his most famous period, during which he brought to fruition the numerous influences of his apprenticeship years and forged an autonomous pictorial language, creating many masterpieces and addressing a number of fundamental artistic issues. […] All the works Matisse executed in this period confirm the supremacy of colour’ (W. Guadagnini, op. cit., pp. 110-111).
Nu au bord de la mer was lent by Matisse for the two versions of the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition held at the Grafton Galleries in London, first between October and December 1912, and in a slightly expanded version in January 1913. In the exhibition catalogue this work was indicated as ‘not for sale’, as evidently the artist intended to keep it in his personal collection. Once the painting was back in Matisse’s studio in 1913, it caught the eye of the American-born photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966), while he was on an assignment photographing Matisse and his wife at their home and studio at Issy-les-Moulineaux on the outskirts of Paris. Nu au bord de la mer was so admired by Coburn, that Matisse agreed to sell it to him.
In his book More Men of Mark, Coburn recounted: 'I first saw the work of Henri Matisse in the second Post-Impressionist exhibition organized by Roger Fry and Clive Bell in London in 1913. [...] In the Post-Impressionist exhibition was a small picture in primary colours by Matisse of a bather on the seashore with her straw hat hung on a tree, which particularly attracted me [...]. When I went to Matisse's Paris studio in May 1913, there was the little sketch which I had admired in the London show to greet me. I persuaded the artist to let me buy it, and for many years I rejoiced in its clear, bright, luminous colours' (A. L. Coburn, op. cit., p. 92).
Nu au bord de la mer was subsequently owned by Eardley Knollys, a British art critic, collector and dealer. With several other prominent figures of the time, including Edward Sackville-West, he formed a literary salon, and counted among his friends many of the Bloomsbury Group artists as well as Picasso. In the late 1930s and early 1940s Knollys ran the fashionable Storran Gallery in London, which exhibited works by British avant-garde artists as well as by Picasso and Modigliani. He also pursued a career as an artist later in life, and assembled a collection of Modern British and European art. After Knollys’s death in 1991 his collection was transferred by his partner and picture framer Mattei Radev from Knollys’s Hampshire residence to London, where it now forms part of the Radev Collection.
It was through Knollys that around 1956 the present work by Matisse entered the collection of Sir John and Lady Smith, where it remained until the death of Lady Smith in 2018. Avid art collectors, they filled their home with beautiful paintings and objects. Works by Matisse, Lowry, Christian Dior and jewellery are among many collecting categories that will feature in the sale of their estate, to be held at Sotheby’s London on 9th July 2019.
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