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Matisse and His Models

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

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The story illustrates exactly what Matisse meant when he said he needed a model to humanize the ordeal of painting. In 1905 it was his wife who stared calmly out from conflagrations of blazing color on canvases that looked to the public and critics like the work of a wild beast. In 1909 it was the sturdy, self-possessed Brouty who pointed the way to a new visual language that would lead eventually to the somber, powerful, semiabstract works Matisse produced at the height of the carnage during WorldWarI. Toward the end of the war, when he had gone as far as it was possible to go at that stage toward abstraction, he turned to another professional model, this time an Italian called Lorette.

There was nothing in the least alluring about The Italian Woman, Matisse’s first painting of Lorette, with her hollowcheeks, sticklike bare arms and cheap, flimsy blouse. The picture’s geometrical construction of black lines and curvessomehow emphasized the touching pathos of this sad andwary hired model, dressed in an outfit hopelessly unsuited tothe freezing temperatures of a Paris winter. The Italian Woman was the last of a series of canvases in which Matissehad stripped painting down to its purest and most austere form. Now he was restless, and ready to throw off the constraints of abstraction. It was at this point that Lorette’s professional training as a model kicked in to liberate both of them. She adored dressing up, switching from waiflike innocence to sumptuous abandon, seeming to change mood, age, even size, as readily as she tried on costumes. Matisse painted her as a flirtatious Spanish señorita in a lace mantilla, a turbaned inhabitant of a Turkish harem and a Parisian cocotte.

He responded to Lorette’s lead as spontaneously as a dancer taking to the floor, painting her energetically from odd angles in strange perspectives, and improvising endlessly inventive rhythmic variations on the central theme of her strong features, heart-shaped face and black hair. Their relationship set a pattern for his future partnerships with models, each of which took on the obsessive intimacy of a love affair played out on canvas. Matisse painted Lorette nearly 50 times over a period of 12 months, breaking off only when he moved his workbase from Paris to a hotel in Nice in 1918.

It was over a year before he found anyone to take Lorette’s place in the provincial resort of Nice, where prospective models were so rare that painters had to wait in line for their services. Antoinette Arnoud was 19 years old, pale and slender, with worldly tastes and an inborn sense of French chic. Matisse responded to her love of style with a hat that he made himself from a cheap straw base with a white ostrich plume curling over the brim. Arnoud wore the new hat with a panache that made her simple white housecoat seem like a ball gown.

Daily painting sessions alternated with hours on end devoted to drawing. Matisse set himself the almost impossible task of retaining the concentrated simplicity and force of his work without sacrificing the sensual texture of fur, feathers, fabric or fluff. He returned over and over again to a lace collar, drawing it in minute detail (“each mesh, yes, almost each thread”) until he had got it by heart and could translate it at will with two swift lines “into an ornament, an arabesque, without losing the character of lace, and of that particular lace,” he once said. The same process was repeated with her embroidered tunic, hat, hair, hands and face. Energy pulses between the lines of the letters Matisse wrote home from the small hotel room in Nice where he lived, slept and worked, having finally succeeded in narrowing his existence down to painting alone. “I’m the hermit of the Promenade des Anglais,” he announced with pride to his wife.

For the public, the quality of Matisse’s pictures at this stage was more or less completely obscured by the lifestyle they depict. French Window at Nice shows Arnoud, with bare legs, long loose hair and scarlet harem pants, seated beside the bed in the painter’s hotel room. 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 amid all the trappings of an affair, endlessly painting one or another of them wearing a slip at the dressing table, half-dressed in a wrapper over a pot of coffee or newly emerged from the bath.

The painter himself said that these Nice interiors are suffused with sublimated sexual pleasure. He claimed that the intensity of his feelings discharged itself through the colors and forms orchestrated on canvas around the models’ bodies, and the evidence suggests this was true. In all the weekly, sometimes daily letters he exchanged during these years with his wife and children, there is nothing to suggest tension on this score, neither defensiveness on his part nor resentment on theirs. Matisse and his wife treated the succession of models in Nice as adoptive daughters. No one who knew him well at the time ever doubted that these women were working partners, not sexual conquests.

Sex, in fact, was one of the things Matisse grumbled about having to do without in Nice. So far as modeling went, he applied the same rules to human beings as to a fish dinner. “I’ve never sampled anything edible that had served me as a model . . . ,” he explained, describing a plate of oysters brought for him to paint from a nearby café by a waiter, who later fetched them back to serve to his customers at midday. Matisse said it never occurred to him to tuck into his oysters for lunch: “It was others who ate them. Posing had made them different for me from their equivalents on a restaurant table.”

The same seems to have been true of the models for his odalisque paintings of the 1920s. The first of these odalisques—sprawling in “harem costumes” on improvised divans—was Antoinette Arnoud’s successor, Henriette Darricarrère, who was working as an extra when Matisse spotted her in the film studios in Nice. He liked her natural dignity, the graceful way her head sat on her neck and, above all, the fact that her body caught the light like a sculpture. Aballet dancer and musician, Henriette became part of the family in the seven years she worked for Matisse. His wife grew especially fond of her, and he himself taught her to paint.

Matisse said it was essential to start by finding the pose that made any new model feel most comfortable. Henriette’s specialty was discovered by accident after a carnival party attended by Matisse and his daughter, dressed respectively as an Arab potentate and a beauty from the harem. Marguerite Matisse, Lorette, even Antoinette Arnoud, all tried on turbans and embroidered Moroccan tops, but it was Henriette, always modest, even prim, in her street clothes, who wore the filmy blouses and low-slung pants without inhibition, becoming at once luxuriant, sensual and calmly authoritative.

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