Matisse and His Models (Smithsonian Magazine)

The author of a new biography of the artist argues that the women he painted were full partners in the creative enterprise

In September 1940, less than three months after Paris had surrendered to Hitler’s armies, artist Henri Matisse, stranded in Nice on the Mediterranean coast, sent a moving letter to his younger son, Pierre, in New York City, explaining why he now needed a model to paint more than ever. France was humiliated and defeated. Like millions of other citizens driven from their homes by the German invaders, Matisse had fled south. He was 70 years old, sick, helpless, fearful for his family and friends, and appalled by what had happened to his country. All he could do was work, but he said he dreaded the daily confrontation with form and color on canvas so much that he couldn’t fact it without the consoling human presence of the pretty young film extras he paid to pose for him. “That’s what keeps me there,” he wrote, “surrounded by my fruit and flowers.”

The young women who posed for him all learned to live and work in the atmosphere of almost unbearable tension generated by Matisse’s effort to express his emotions on canvas. In 1905 it was his wife who stared calmly out from conflagrations of blazing color in such paintings as Woman in a Hat and Portrait of Madame Matisse—canvases that looked to the public and critics like the work of a wild beast. In 1909 it was a professional French model named Loulou Brouty who pointed the way to a new visual language that would lead eventually to the powerful, semiabstract works he produced at the height of the carnage during World War I. Toward the end of the war, he turned to another professional model—this time an Italian called Lorette. Lorette, in turn, was followed by 19-year-old Antoinette Arnoud and ballet dancer and musician Henriette Darricarrère, who modeled for him over a period of seven years.

People drew the obvious (but as it now turns out, erroneous) conclusion from the fact that Matisse posed the young girls who sat for him in the 1920s in Nice amid all the trappings of an affair, endlessly painting one or another of them wearing a slip at the dressing table or half-dressed over a pot of coffee. But Matisse and his wife treated this succession of models as adoptive daughters. No one who knew him well at that time ever doubted that these women were working partners, not sexual conquests.

“He knew how to take possession of people,” wrote Lydia Delectorskaya, the young Russian beauty who was Matisse’s secretary, model and companion for the last two decades of his life. He made “them believe they were indispensable.” (more…)

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