In the year of 1919, Matisse also regularly visited the ailing Pierre-Auguste Renoir in Cagnes during the final months of his life. As a young man Matisse was a frequent guest in Renoir’s studio, turning to the aging artist for professional advice and inspiration (see fig. 2). “Renoir’s work saves us from the drying-up effect of pure abstraction” Matisse explained in an interview that same year (quoted in Hilary Spurling, Matisse the Master, A Life of Henri Matisse, The Conquest of Colour, London, 2005, p. 223). He believed that Renoir’s art was an antidote to the stultifying impact of Cubism that he saw consuming his peers, and he struggled to reveal the plastic beauty of form and figuration. Throughout the war years, the artist had worked against the tide of the Parisian avant-garde, committing himself to a style of painting that was grounded in form and color. But at the beginning of 1919, his determination was at its most strident: "Work monopolized him from the start," writes Hilary Spurling of this period. "Throughout the first months of 1919, he complained that the road lay uphill, that he was toiling like a carthorse, that his labors exhausted him and made him despair. But he had no doubt that he was on to something. 'As for telling you what it will be like,' he wrote to his wife on January 9th of 1919, 'that I couldn't say since it hasn't happened yet, but my idea is to push further and deeper into true painting'" (ibid., p. 223).
John Elderfield has compared Matisse’s technique during this period to that of Vermeer, who also effectively preserved the serenity and lyrical intimacy of his models, “The kind of order he emulates…is indeed that of a Vermeer, or a Chardin, except that he shows us an unabashed sensuality quite foreign to any such earlier bourgeois vision. He looks also to Renoir and Courbet, and frankly enjoys the seductiveness with which he surrounds himself” (John Elderfield, “The Early Years of Nice,” in Henri Matisse: A Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1992, p. 289).
By 1920 this portrait had found its way into the collection of the legendary American collector and patron of the arts John Quinn, whose other modernist masterpieces included Matisse’s Blue Nude and Picasso’s Three Musicians (see fig. 3). During World War I he provided funding for artists in France, writing in a 1915 letter to his friend Maud Gonne that “the world needs the artist and poet more than they need the world.” Quinn later received the Legion of Honor for his service to the nation of France.
During the war, a future owner of the painting, Edward G. Robinson, served in the United States Navy. He went on to become a Hollywood actor, appearing in over 100 films during his long career, as well as earning a reputation for speaking out against the threat of fascism during the 1930s and funding political, cultural and educational projects.
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