Greta Moll was a sculptor who, along with her German husband Oskar Moll, was enrolled in Matisse’s art school, which he opened in 1908. She had previously been a student in Berlin where her portrait had been painted by the German artist Lovis Corinth. On being shown a photograph of that portrait, which he disliked, Matisse offered to paint his own portrait of her.
Despite the apparent simplicity and directness of his portrait, Greta had to pose for ten three-hour sessions before Matisse could complete it. He decided early on to use the blue and white patterned fabric as a background, and it became a favourite studio prop that appears in many of his paintings. Following the example of Georges Seurat, Matisse deliberately placed pure colours next to each other for maximum effect, but his final choice for Greta’s pose, particularly the position of her arms, was based upon paintings by Veronese and Ingres.
Born in 1884 in Mulhouse (then annexed to the German Empire as part of Alsace-Lorraine), Greta Moll was a sculptor and her German husband, Oskar Moll, a painter. Both were enrolled in Matisse’s art school, which he opened in 1908. Among the earliest collectors of Matisse, the Molls were to create the finest collection of his work in Germany. Greta had previously been a student in Berlin, where she studied with the German artist Lovis Corinth, who had painted her portrait in 1907. On being shown a photograph of the portrait, which he disliked, Matisse offered to paint his own portrait of her for 1000 francs – but with no obligation to buy if she and her husband were dissatisfied with it.
Despite the apparent simplicity and directness of this portrait, Greta had to pose for ten three-hour sessions before Matisse completed it. He decided early on to use the blue and white toile de Jouy patterned fabric as a background because it provided ‘a wonderful grandeur’. This cotton print became a favourite studio prop and appears in many of Matisse’s paintings from this period, including The Dessert: Harmony of Red (State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg), also painted in 1908. The distinctive fabric also determined the final choice of colours for the entire painting. As Greta’s head is enveloped by bold swirls of blue, Matisse kept altering the colours of her blouse and skirt which at one time were lavender-white and green. In the finished painting, Matisse, following the example of Seurat, deliberately placed pure colours next to each other for maximum effect – for example, the warm reddish-brown of Greta’s hair complements the cooler blue of the fabric. That red is repeated below her right forearm and contrasts with the green line above it.
The portrait was painted just three years after the 1905 Salon d’Automne in Paris, when Matisse and his associates were dubbed Les Fauves (‘the wild beasts’) for their near discordant colours applied in frenetic brushstrokes and their use of broken lines. Here, however, although he was still committed to creating intense colour effects, Matisse was striving to maintain expressive unity. He was seeking to reconcile the need to paint a recognisable portrait with that of creating a self-contained composition with its own internal harmony.
Matisse looked at other paintings in an attempt to resolve the problem. In a statement made in the 1940s, he commented on how he was ‘nearly completely discouraged’ by his inability to capture Greta’s ’statuesque quality‘, but that he knew of ’a portrait of similar character‘ in the Louvre. That portrait was Veronese’s Woman and Child with a Dog (1565–70). Matisse wanted to give his portrait of Greta the same ’grandeur' he saw in the Veronese and he viewed the pose and smooth, rounded forearms of Veronese’s sitter as providing a key to resolving his own portrait. But Greta’s heavy forearms, especially her right arm, also have an echo of the languid, seemingly boneless arms of Ingres’s Madame Moitessier. Much of Ingres’s portrait is also taken up with the prominent display of a floral-patterned fabric.
In spite of his difficulties in completing the portrait, Matisse was pleased with the final painting and he entered it for the Salon d’Automne of 1908. He also used it for one of the six illustrations in his widely circulated theoretical statement, Notes of a Painter (1908), which Greta translated for publication in Germany the following year.
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