Few artists have shaped our idea of modernism as much as Henri Matisse. The French father of Fauvism first stunned the Parisian art world in 1905 with his portrait of his wife Amélie titled Femme au chapeau. Painted with a teal face, orange neck and green arms, this work introduced Matisse’s riotous and illogical use of color but was completely incomprehensible to his contemporaries. It spoke of the visionary and shocking underlying current of his work; to paint not what he saw but what he felt. 

Tying his feelings and his work so closely meant Matisse developed an all-consuming relationship to everything he created. He once told his daughter Marguerite: “It’s always necessary to force your whole being beyond this level because it’s only then that you start to make discoveries and tear yourself apart in the process.” He would give himself entirely to each piece, often forsaking both his physical and mental health.

Such an intensity was reflected in the relationships Matisse developed with all his models, including his wife. Everyone who posed for him became an equal collaborator, invested in the work as well as Matisse. This closeness allowed him to work beyond the purely visual, capturing the character of his subjects as well as the force of his feelings in the colors and forms of his paintings, drawings and original prints. However, such an emotional and reliant nature to his practice did not come without problems and would later even cause one model to attempt suicide.

Left: Henri Matisse, Torse nu au collier d’ambre, 1929. Right: Henri Matisse, Nu renversé près d’une table Louis XV, 1929. Available to buy on fineartmultiple

Unlike his friend and lifelong rival Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse’s relationships with his models were not, as far as we are aware, physical. As a result, his works—particularly his drawings—express a tension born from unpursued sexual desire. The erotic charge of his nudes and portraits transcends pure lust, depicting a passion that is not just between two people but between Matisse and the very act of painting and drawing. Played out on his canvases and in his prints are obsessive love affairs. Ultimately, however, this was not reflective of his personal life, which was marked by a deep dedication to his work, a hermit-like existence and a forty-year marriage.

Henri Matisse, Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, 1923.

Instead Matisse’s models became like adoptive daughters to his family, especially in the early years. The one the artist returned to most during this period was professional model Loulou Brouty who spent a whole summer with the Matisses in 1909, providing company for Amélie and taking swimming lessons from the family in between painting sessions. His relationship with Henriette Darricarrère, the subject of his classic Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, was similarly obsessive and constant. She worked with the artist from 1920 to 1927. Matisse compulsively returned to both Loulou and Henriette’s faces and bodies over these years as he did with all his models, pushing them to the limits of endurance in his quest to learn their forms and develop his style, which he was constantly unsatisfied with.

Left: Henri Matisse in 1933. Image: via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Henri Matisse, Patitcha, 1947.

Perhaps Matisse’s most loyal model and the one to have the deepest impact on his career and works was Lydia Delectorskaya who he met in 1932. Orphaned during the Russian Revolution, Lydia had long golden hair, blue eyes and pale skin—a complete departure from his previous dark haired French subjects. Lydia initially worked as a studio manager for Matisse before being asked to model and later becoming the artist’s creative partner. She is credited with making possible Matisse’s astoundingly iconic late burst of creativity—the Cut-Outs.

However his collaboration with Lydia was incredibly traumatic. As she began to take over the role that had been his wife’s for forty years, Amélie became increasingly jealous and eventually forced Matisse to choose between herself and Lydia. The artist picked his wife and asked Lydia to leave. Pained by the thought of losing the man she’d dedicated herself to, Lydia attempted to shoot herself in the chest. She survived but Amélie still filed for divorce, separating from Matisse in 1939. Unable to function alone, Matisse asked Lydia to reinstate her post and organize his now spiraling life. Her unwavering determination and commitment to Matisse was so strong that it maintained the artist through the Nazi occupation of France and allowed him to keep up his tirelessly innovative work ethic despite his desperately ill health in his later years. Up until his death he returned to her as subject and his last work—created the day before he died—is a ballpoint sketch of her sat devotedly at his bedside.

Henri Matisse’s Femme au chapeau is on display as part of SFMOMA’s Open Ended: Painting and Sculpture, 1900 exhibition.