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                                 Matisse's Models and the Art of Life Drawing

A little about Matisse and his Models

Matisse, brilliant artist and colourist, friend of Picasso and lover of the Mediteranean good life had many beautiful models pose for him over the years. 

But, they were never sexual conquests. To him, they were creatures of sublime beauty. They were youthful and feminine, earthy and exotic. 

All but one remained as such, though, in the end, in his final years, it was the beautiful Russian model Lydia Delectorskya that came between him and his wife. Madame Matisse, furious at her husband's relationship with Lydia, left him as France fell into the hands of Nazi Germany. 

Marguerite and LouLou

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.

His models included the painter’s then teenage daughter, Marguerite  and two of his students. But the one he returned to most often was a professional model named Loulou, who spent a whole summer with the Matisses in a remote Mediterranean fishing village in 1909.

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.”

Henriette: The Odalisque; Moroccan Style Model

Henriette was discovered by accident after a carnival party where she had dressed as an Arab princess beauty from an Arabian palace harem. Marguerite, Matisse, and other friends at the party, 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 and sensual. The perfect new model for Matisse's Odalisque paintings inspired by North African culture.


When Matisse established himself in Nice, on the French Riviera, 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.

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.”

Lydia and Love

In 1935 Matisse met Lydia. She was a Russian and by her own account she could hardly have been more different from the dark-eyed, black-haired, olive-skinned southern types he had preferred until now.

Lydia was 25, Matisse was 65. She thought of him as a kindly and polite old gentleman because (unlike previous artists, who had taught her to detest modeling) he never pawed at her or tried to take off her clothes. “Gradually I began to adapt and feel less ‘shackled,’ ” she wrote, “ the end, I even began to take an interest in his work.”

“With me, he knew how to be gentle and seductive. He was charming, and so touching. He knew how to tame me.” Matisse said he came eventually to know her face and body by heart, like the alphabet.

It was their working alliance, rather than any question of adultery, that precipitated a crisis in Matisse’s marriage. Faced with an ultimatum from Amélie (“It’s me or her”), Matisse chose his wife and sacked .

The day before he died, she was still at his side. He sketched her with a ballpoint pen, holding the last drawing he ever made out at arm’s length to assess its quality before pronouncing gravely, “It will do.”