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, taking no more than he could carry, living precariously from one day to the next, and ending up in Nice, where a nervous population expected imminent invasion by Fascist Italian troops.
Matisse was 70, 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 face it without the consoling human presence of the pretty young film extras he paid to pose for him. That’s what keeps me there, surrounded by my fruit and flowers which I get to grips with little by little, almost without noticing . . . and then I wait for the thunderbolt that is bound to follow.”
The French expression for thunderbolt—coup de foudre—means “love at first sight,” with all the undertones of violence and risk that were an intrinsic part of Matisse’s passion for painting. Anxiety and dread hung over his studio sessions. Toward the end of his life he told an interviewer that each canvas began as a flirtation and ended up as a rape. He said it was himself, not his subject—or rather it was the feelings his subject aroused in him—that had to be raped. The subject itself could be fruit, flowers or a fabric screen, as often as a human sitter. 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—an effort that drained all his strength.
It was precisely his aura of desperation and danger that had first attracted Matisse’s wife, Amélie, who posed for or presided over every one of the great revolutionary canvases he produced in the first years of the 20th century. “As for me, I’m in my element when the house burns down,” she said coolly, in response to the howls of outrage provoked by her husband’s work. The riotous colors of his Woman in a Hat and Portrait of Madame Matisse, both painted in 1905, unnerved contemporaries. His notorious Blue Nude—a fiercely distorted picture of Amélie reclining in a sunlit glade beneath palm fronds—seemed grotesque and obscene when it was first shown in Paris in 1907. Even to Matisse’s faithful supporter, the young American critic Walter Pach, it felt like a punch between the eyes.
Matisse’s reputation as a Modernist leader was built on this sort of shock. So his followers saw it as an unforgivable betrayal when he moved from Paris to Nice ten years later and started painting good-looking young women in transparent tops and harem pants lounging on cushioned divans. “He’s given in, he’s calmed down, the public is on his side,” Matisse’s friend, politician and collector Marcel Sembat, wrote in disgust when the French state bought Odalisque in Red Culottes in 1922. Sembat’s view of Matisse at this stage as an essentially frivolous and decorative lightweight would set the tone of response to his work for decades to come. It was useless for Matisse himself to protest that his odalisque paintings of the 1920s and ’30s were a series of chromatic experiments, a long, grueling preparatory phase without which he could not have produced the astonishing cut-and-painted paper compositions constructed directly from color in the last decade of his life. The conventional verdict dismissed him, at the time and afterward, as a kind of 20th-century Fragonard, turning out sexy pictures for rich men’s Manhattan apartments and villas in the south of France.
Matisse himself knew perfectly well that the erotic charge in his work came from a passionate desire that overrode straightforward lust. It was painting itself that seduced him over and over again with each fresh canvas. In old age when he was too weak to stand all day at the easel, he feared going blind as well “because of having flirted for too long . . . with these enchanted colors.”
All his life Matisse drove his models as well as himself to the limits of endurance. He insisted it was better to risk ruining a painting than be satisfied with a surface likeness. It’s always necessary to force your whole being beyond this stage, he told his daughter, Marguerite, because it’s only then that you start to make discoveries, and tear yourself apart in the process.
Matisse paid with insomnia and panic attacks for his inability ever to be satisfied with what he could already do. The models were generally exhausted, sometimes mutinous, often apprehensive in the early years, when they had to come to terms not only with public ridicule but with their own private misgivings. Even the boldest, Matisse’s student Greta Moll, was horrified to find her features discolored and her limbs distorted on Matisse’s canvas. Amélie herself wept in distress when she saw the last painting he ever made of her, the grave and beautiful Portrait of Madame Matisse of 1913, with stony black eyes set in a delicate masklike gray face.
It took courage to pose for the extraordinary portraits Matisse made before World War I: The Girl with Green Eyes, The Algerian Girl, Girl in Green, Girl with Black Cat. The confident gaze and frank body language of these young women, painted almost a century ago, speak directly to us today, although contemporaries could see little in these portraits but meaningless jumbles of color outlined in ugly black brushstrokes. The sitters included the painter’s then teenage daughter, Marguerite (always one of his favorite models), and two of his students. But the one he returned to most often was a professional model named Loulou Brouty, who spent a whole summer with the Matisses in a remote Mediterranean fishing village in 1909. The entire family liked Brouty. She amused the children (Marguerite, Jean and Pierre), was company for Amélie, and took swimming lessons from Henri between painting sessions. She was a typical Parisienne, earthy and tough, with dark hair, catlike features, a lithe body and skin so richly tanned by summer’s end that Matisse’s pupils nicknamed her “the Italian sunset.”
The pictures he painted of Brouty startled everyone, including the painter himself. Marcel Sembat and his wife bought one of them, a seated nude that made them scream out loud the first time they saw it. “We had come across a strange little canvas,” wrote Sembat, “something gripping, unheard of, frighteningly new: something that very nearly frightened its maker himself. On a harsh pink ground, flaming against dark blue shadows reminiscent of Chinese or Japanese masters, was the seated figure of a violet-colored woman. We stared at her, stupefied. . . all four of us.” Sembat said afterward that the picture only made sense once you stopped trying to read it as a conventional nude and responded instinctively to the sensations of dazzling light, heat and shade conveyed by its patchwork of colors. “You see, I wasn’t just trying to paint a woman,” Matisse explained. “I wanted to paint my overall impression of the south.”