Delacroix Odalisque Reclining Divan Analysis Essay

Reclining Nude 1924 is a charcoal drawing by the French artist Henri Matisse depicting a young nude female figure lying on a striped divan. The figure’s upper torso is propped up by a large dark cushion, while her right arm is folded backwards into the crease of her neck and her left arm is wrapped around the back of her head. Despite the openness of her pose – her body is presented from the front, fully revealed down to the knee – the expression on her face is ambiguous, with eyes cast downward or possibly closed. In the background of the drawing, to the right of the reclining figure, a patterned wall-covering is visible that bears an abstract motif in dark lines that reflect the soft curving shapes of the sitter’s facial features and her figure.

Matisse made this work in his studio at Place Charles-Félix, Nice, in 1924, and the model for the drawing is Henriette Darricarrière, a dancer, pianist and painter who lived nearby. Darricarrière was one of the primary models for the artist’s controversial series of paintings, sculptures and prints made during the period c.1917–39 that are informally entitled the ‘harem views’ or ‘odalisques’, of which this drawing is an example (see also Draped Nude 1936, Tate T00306, and Matisse’s discussion of the odalisques in Flam 1995, pp.275–6). The term ‘odalisque’ originates from the Turkish word Odalik, meaning female harem slave or chambermaid. In order to create the odalisques, Matisse decorated an alcove of his studio to resemble the Moorish interiors he had seen on a trip to Morocco in 1912. An avid collector of ‘Oriental’ objects – African, Eastern and Middle Eastern tapestries, clothing and artefacts – Matisse’s studio was replete with an ever-changing configuration of mirrors, decorative screens, patterned wall-hangings and exotic costumes for his models.

Despite Matisse’s odalisques constituting the mainstay of his artistic output for almost two decades, his ‘Oriental’ themed works were initially poorly received by his critics and garnered him the derogatory title ‘Sultan of the Riviera’. Previous supporters of Matisse’s work of the early 1900s – a period which saw the artist experimenting with abstract planes of colour, unconventional perspectives and angular forms (see, for example, Standing Nude 1907, Tate T00368) – interpreted the return to figuration as seen in Reclining Nude as a form of artistic regression. Furthermore, as a result of their exotic subject matter, the odalisques were unfavourably identified as part of a voyeuristic tradition of French Orientalist painting established in the early nineteenth century by artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix (see, for example, Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque 1814, Musée du Louvre, Paris, and Delacroix’s Odalisque c.1825, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). As the art historian and Matisse biographer Hilary Spurling has observed:

The conventional verdict dismissed him, at the time and afterward, as a kind of twentieth-century Fragonard, turning out sexy pictures for rich men’s Manhattan apartments and villas in the south of France.
(Spurling 2005, accessed 26 February 2015.)

Matisse protested against such interpretations of his works and remained adamant regarding the legitimacy of the odalisque as a creative subject. In an interview with the French writer Jacques Guenne in 1925, Matisse justified his use of this motif by claiming a first-hand knowledge of his subject and emphasising the inevitable artifice that accompanies any attempt to depict the female nude: ‘I do Odalisques in order to do nudes. But, how does one do a nude without being artificial? And then I do them because I know they exist. I was in Morocco, I have seen them’ (quoted in Flam 1995, p.86).

More recently, the negative reception of Matisse’s odalisques has been reassessed by art historians such as Spurling and John Elderfield, who acknowledge a distinct difference between Matisse’s approach to the subject and that of previous generations of French Orientalist painters with whom his works are often compared. For instance, Elderfield argues that the foregrounding of the ornate tapestries in Matisse’s odalisque works detracts from the sexualisation of his female subjects, stating that ‘the decorativeness and the very construction of a costume and of a painting are offered as analogous. What developed were groups of paintings showing his model in similar or different poses, costumes, and settings: a sequence of themes and variations that gained in mystery and intensity as it unfolded’ (Elderfield 1992, p.357).

Further reading
John Elderfield, Henri Matisse: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1992.
Jack Flam, Matisse on Art, London 1995.
Hilary Spurling, ‘Matisse and his Models’, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2005,, accessed 26 February 2015.

Judith Wilkinson
February 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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