Matisse’s Women: Four female muses who shaped the master


Henri Matisse’s Portrait de madame Matisse Collioure 1905.

As South Africa marks 60 years since the historic Women’s March to the Union Buildings, the Standard Bank Gallery raises a toast to an artist whose life brimmed with interesting and influential women – Henri Matisse.

Thousands of visitors have already marvelled at the Henri Matisse – Rhythm and Meaning exhibition, the first full-scale showcase of the French modernist’s work on the African continent. Art lovers have until September 17 to experience this rare and illuminating display of paintings, sculptures, prints and paper cutouts spanning 50 years.
The female figure dominated Matisse’s work. Among the works on show are Portrait de Madame Matisse [Portrait of Madame Matisse]. Matisse met Amélie Parayre at a friend’s wedding in October 1897, and they were married three months later. He said at the time: “Mademoiselle, I love you dearly, but I shall always love painting more.”

Amélie is the subject of more than 100 of Matisse’s portraits, which were non-naturalistic and went beyond likeness, establishing his status as a leader of the avant-garde. She ran his studio and his household while raising their three children: sons Jean and Pierre, as well as Marguerite, Matisse’s daughter from a previous relationship (whom she adopted). Amélie and Matisse separated in 1939.

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Marguerite (Marguerite in a Leather Hat, 1914

Another subject was Marguerite, born in 1894 to Caroline “Camille” Joblaud, one of Matisse’s early models who was also his mistress. At the age of six, Marguerite fell ill with diphtheria and had an emergency tracheotomy. After that, she always wore a ribbon around her neck to hide the scar.

Matisse and Marguerite were very close, and he valued her forthright and intelligent critiques of his work. She modelled for him frequently, and this striking portrait is typical of the light palette and distorted perspectives of his Fauvist (“wild beast”) works.

Marguerite was active in the French resistance during World War II, and was captured, interrogated and tortured by Gestapo agents. She managed to escape, and survived the War.

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Lydia, 1947

Another favourite model was Lydia Delectorskaya, who was born in Siberia. She  was orphaned at the age of 12 and fled revolution-era Russia.

In 1932, the beautiful but penniless young refugee found work as a studio assistant and domestic worker in the Matisse household in Nice. Lydia began modelling for Matisse and also helped him manage the paper cutout system that became such an important technique in his later years.

Even though they were not lovers, she became indispensable to Matisse, and their close relationship placed strain on Matisse’s marriage. In 1938, a jealous Amélie gave Matisse an ultimatum: her or Lydia. He chose his wife and dismissed Lydia, who attempted suicide by shooting herself in the chest, but the bullet lodged against her breastbone.

Amélie and Matisse separated, and Lydia (whom he called his “snow princess”) returned to his side – where she stayed, devotedly, for the rest of his life. The very last portrait Matisse drew on the day before he died was a ballpoint sketch of Lydia.

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Portrait d’Ida Chagall (Portrait of Ida Chagall), 1948

In 1948 Matisse did a series of drawings of Ida Chagall, daughter of fellow artist Marc Chagall. He found her face captivating, writing to his son Pierre that he found that she had “a mobility of expression that runs over her face like the sun runs light and shadow across a field of oats under a slightly cloudy sky”.

This pencil drawing of Ida was reproduced opposite the title page of a book titled La femme sacrée (Sacred Woman) produced for a charity event in 1948. Marc Chagall designed the cover of the book that featured work by artists such as Jean Cocteau. Several other line drawings of Ida Chagall are on display in this exhibition, showing Matisse’s mastery of the simple, spare but eloquent line.

Henri Matisse – Rhythm and Meaning is co-curated by Patrice Deparpe, director of the Musée départemental Matisse, Le Cateau-Cambrésis, and Federico Freschi, executive dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg.

The Standard Bank Gallery is located on the corner of Simmonds and Frederick streets in central Johannesburg. Entry to the exhibition is free.

Gallery hours are Mondays to Fridays from 8am to 4.30pm, and Saturdays from 9am to 4pm. There are daily shuttle services from Park Station to the gallery, between 11.30am and 2.15pm, from Mondays to Saturdays. Book at

Free public walkabouts by art educator Wilhelm van Rensburg will take place on September 7, 9, 10, 14, 16 and 17.

A two hundred page, full colour Henri Matisse – Rhythm and Meaning catalogue is available at the exhibition for only R300 which includes the full range of works on the exhibition and intensive commentary various art historians and co-curator Prof Federico Freschi.

Henri Matisse – Rhythm and Meaning is presented by Standard Bank in partnership with the Embassy of France in South Africa and the French Institute of South Africa, and with the support of the Musée départemental Matisse du Cateau-Cambrésis, Air France, Total and Air Liquide.


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