Skip to main content

Matisse and Degas

In Combing the Hair ('La Coiffure') Degas captures a quiet domestic scene with the technical audacity typical of his late years, with warm hues and the forms outlined in thick black lines. Degas kept the painting until his death in 1917, and by the 1920s, it was owned by Matisse.

Matisse began collecting art early in his career, before he could really afford to. He paid for his first painting, by Cézanne, in installments; he even allegedly pawned his wife’s ring and used her dowry to be able to make his first purchases. As well as acquiring paintings by his contemporaries and 19th-century masters, he also amassed an eclectic collection that ranged from rugs, fabrics, and African artefacts. While the objects served as a library of motifs, the paintings provided inspiration for his pictorial and sculptural practices.

As both a colourist and draughtsman, Matisse initiated some of the most groundbreaking developments of the 20th century. Degas’s radiant palette finds echoes in Matisse’s colours and, in particular, his distinctive use of red. The subject too resonated with Matisse. Around the time that he acquired this painting, he was increasingly drawn to the subject of lone women in light-filled interiors, often lost in thought and seemingly unaware of being observed.

As Matisse’s taste evolved, he parted with pictures in order to acquire others, or sold works when he needed money. He kept Degas’s painting for at least 16 years, selling it in 1937 via his son Pierre, an art dealer in New York, to Sir Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery, where it joined the Gallery’s growing collection of late 19th-century French art.