Henri Matisse with Model Henriette Darricarrère, in Nice. 1927.
From Hilary Spurling, Smithsonian Magazine, 2005. Matisse and His Models.
The same seems to have been true of the models for his odalisque paintings of the 1920s. The first of these odalisques—sprawling in “harem costumes” on improvised divans—was Antoinette Arnoud’s successor, Henriette Darricarrère, who was working as an extra when Matisse spotted her in the film studios in Nice. He liked her natural dignity, the graceful way her head sat on her neck and, above all, the fact that her body caught the light like a sculpture. A ballet dancer and musician, Henriette became part of the family in the seven years she worked for Matisse. His wife grew especially fond of her, and he himself taught her to paint.
Matisse said it was essential to start by finding the pose that made any new model feel most comfortable. Henriette’s specialty was discovered by accident after a carnival party attended by Matisse and his daughter, dressed respectively as an Arab potentate and a beauty from the harem. Marguerite Matisse, Lorette, even Antoinette Arnoud, 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, sensual and calmly authoritative.
The pictorial possibilities she opened up for Matisse were enhanced by her exceptional sensitivity and stamina. He saw the work they produced together as an increasingly complex orchestration of colored light and mass, culminating in his Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground, which was almost as incomprehensible in 1926 as the Blue Nude had been nearly 20 years earlier. The painting is a riot of exuberant trompe l’oeil wallpaper, flowers, fruit and patterned textiles, all pinned firmly in place by the pale upright figure of Henriette. She looked as impersonal and unyielding as a side of packaged butcher’s meat to Matisse’s friend, the painter Jules Flandrin, who was baffled and exhilarated in equal measure: “I can’t begin to convey the brilliantly successful contrast between the wallpaper flowers and the woman so skillfully mishandled,” he wrote to a friend. Soon after the completion of Decorative Figure, Henriette left to get married.