By the early 1930s, after decades of popular and critical success as a painter, Matisse began to pursue a number of professional opportunities to advance his aesthetic practice while subtly and playfully diverging from his painterly legacy. In 1931, the year the present work was executed, the artist enjoyed a series of high-profile exhibitions, held variously at Galeries Georges Petit in Paris, the Kunsthalle in Basel, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This same year, he illustrated a volume of poetry written by the French Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé. Matisse's illustrations, paired with drafts for a mural commissioned by the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, established drawing as a central tenet of Matisse's mature œuvre.
The refocusing of Matisse's practice at the height of this success as a painter reinvigorated his approach to drawing which he now considered instrumental to the success of a work. He would comment to his students, ‘I believe that study by means of drawing is most essential. If drawing is the spirit and colour of the sense, you must draw first, to cultivate the spirit and to be able to lead colour into spiritual paths’ (Lydia Delectorskaya, With Apparent Ease… Henri Matisse, Paris, 1988, p. 86).
The female figure served as continual inspiration for Matisse across his range of artistic media and it is in charcoal drawings such as the present work that we find some of his most sensual renderings. In Femme allongée, the woman’s body is beautifully realised in subtle tonal gradations that suggest the soft texture of the female form. It is a splendid example of Matisse's observation that ‘drawing is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence’ (John Elderfield, The Drawings of Henri Matisse, London, 1984, p. 10).
Femme allongée captures the relaxation, sensuality, and intimacy that characterizes Matisse’s Nice-period works—in particular the odalisques that dominate his output during the 1920s and 1930s. Through these works, Matisse continues the long-standing tradition of lavish reclining nudes and odalisques established by Masters including Titian, Ingres, and Delacroix. While many of these works involved rich, intricate interiors, Matisse’s focus was always on the model, as the present drawing reveals.
Discussing the works from the Nice period, Matisse wrote that: 'My models, human figures, are never just 'extras' in an interior. They are the principal theme in my work. I depend entirely on my model, whom I observe at liberty, and then I decide on the pose which best suits her nature. When I take a new model, I intuit the pose that will best suit her from her un-self-conscious attitudes of repose, and then I become the slave of that pose. [...] 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' (quoted in Ernst Gerhard Güse, Henri Matisse, Drawings and Sculpture, Munich, 1991, p. 22).