Lot 24A. Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Le guitariste debout, signed 'Henri Matisse' (lower right), oil on canvas, 21 ¾ x 18 ¼ in. (55.2 x 46.4 cm.) Painted in 1903. Estimate USD 3,000,000 - USD 5,000,000. © Christie's Image Ltd 2019.
Provenance: Ambroise Vollard, Paris (acquired from the artist, by 1904; placed in storage by Erich Chlomovich at the Société Générale, Paris, 1940-1979).
Restituted to the heirs of Ambroise Vollard (1998).
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1999.
Literature: P. Schneider, Matisse, London, 1984, p. 200, note 30.
Exhibited: (Probably) Grandes serres de la Ville de Paris, 19e exposition de la sociétédes artistes indépendants, March-April 1903, no. 1667.
(Probably) Paris, Galerie Vollard, Exposition Matisse, January 1904, no. 30.
Paris, Grand Palais des Champs-Elysées, Société du Salon d’Automne, October-November 1904, p. 59, no. 609 or 610.
London, Royal Academy of Arts and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Matisse, His Art and His Textiles, March-September 2005, pp. 85 and 180, no. 6 (illustrated in color, p. 85).
New York, Eykyn Maclean, Matisse and the Model, October-December 2011, pp. 66 and 77, no. 46 (illustrated in color, p. 67).
New York, Hammer Galleries, Matisse & Picasso, November 2015-February 2016, p. 12 (illustrated in color, p. 13).
Note: Georges Matisse has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Painted in 1903 when Matisse was 33 years old, a senior member of the rising generation of the avant-garde, the present Guitariste presciently anticipates some of the most radically innovative aspects of the artist’s oeuvre. Depicting a male model outfitted as a guitar-playing toreador in knee breaches and pink stockings, his mouth open in lively song, the painting is among the earliest manifestations of several themes—music and dance, exotic costume and theatricality—that would come to have a determinative role in Matisse’s creative universe. The volumetric modeling of the guitarist reflects Matisse’s integration of the lessons of Cézanne, whose work would remain a modernist touchstone for the younger master throughout his career, while the background space of the studio resolves into a nearly abstract assemblage of overlapping, colored planes, rendered with proto-Fauve autonomy and exuberance. At the far left, most notably, making its first appearance in Matisse’s work, is a length of toile de Jouythat the artist had recently acquired, which would serve thereafter as his trusted ally in disrupting the laws of perspective and subverting traditional canons of three-dimensional illusion.
This revelatory, forward-looking canvas, acquired by the dealer Ambroise Vollard within a year of its creation, is all the more remarkable for having been painted during a period of profound adversity for Matisse. In May 1902, his wife Amélie’s parents were implicated in a financial scam that their employers Frédéric and Thérèse Humbert were found to have perpetrated for years. Amélie’s father, Armand Parayre, then sixty years old, was arrested and imprisoned. Amélie’s own health suffered, and she was forced to close her millinery business, from which she and the artist derived practically their sole income. In December 1902, to cut costs and escape the rampant gossip in Paris, they and their three young children took refuge at Matisse’s childhood home in Bohain. It was not until the following August, when the Humberts were tried and convicted, and the Parayres recognized as blameless instruments in their crimes, that the family could put the entire scandal behind them and return to Paris.
The present Guitariste, representing a burst of unfettered joyfulness during this time of struggle, can be placed with some precision within the chronology. The canvas was painted in Matisse’s atelier at 19, quai Saint-Michel in Paris—a proper studio with good light and a platform for the model—and not in Bohain, where the artist lacked such amenities. At the Salon des Indépendants in spring 1903, Matisse showed either the present painting or a pendant Guitariste, the latter depicting the model seated rather than standing; the two versions are certainly contemporaneous, suggesting that both were created before the exhibition opened in mid-March. Complicating matters, Matisse later recalled that he purchased the toile de Jouy in the background of the present painting in 1903, having spotted it in the window of a second-hand clothing shop on the Left Bank while he was riding a horse-drawn bus. The canvas, in that case, can only have been painted in the opening weeks of 1903, presumably during one of several brief trips that Matisse made to Paris over the course of his exile in Bohain.
Temporarily back in the capital, Matisse would have been eager to avail himself of the artistic resources there. To pose for both versions of Le Guitariste, he enlisted a familiar figure—a burly Italian laborer turned professional model named Giovanni Bevilacqua, his only regular sitter outside the family during these cash-strapped early years of his career. Matisse had first worked with Bevilacqua in the studio of Eugène Carrière, where he took painting instruction in 1899-1900. When Carrière’s class folded and a group of former students banded together to share a model, Matisse insisted that they hire Bevilacqua, drawn to his craggy, muscular physique and sense of feral energy. Over the next three years, the bearded peasant became a regular on the quai Saint-Michel, posing for Matisse well over a hundred times by the artist’s count. “Various female models would absorb him at intervals in the future to the exclusion of all else,” Hilary Spurling has noted, “but this was the only time he ever subjected a male body to the same brooding and possessive scrutiny” (H. Spurling, The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse, New York, 1998, p. 214).
Bevilacqua is best remembered today as the model for Matisse’s early sculptural masterpiece Le Serf, an unidealized embodiment of sheer, tangible physicality and rugged strength. Although scholars long believed him to be the same person as César Pignatelli, a fixture in the Parisian model pool who made his name posing for Rodin’s figure of Saint John the Baptist in 1878, recent research has demonstrated that Bevilacqua was in fact 25 years younger than Pignatelli (H. Spurling, “Matisse’s Italian Models” in exh. cat., op. cit., 2011, p. 62). The two men were remarkably alike in physical type, though, and hailed from the same mountainous, poverty-stricken region of Italy. Moreover, the bold split-stance of Rodin’s Saint John—and its visionary, turn-of-the-century variant, L’homme qui marche—re-appears both in Le Serf, where it conveys stoical effort and endurance, and in the present Guitariste, where it generates instead an effect of dynamic bravado.
In dressing up Bevilacqua as a Spanish guitar player, Matisse—suddenly the sole breadwinner in the family—no doubt hoped to capitalize on the Salon penchant for picturesque costume pieces. The present canvas harks back to Courbet and Manet’s renderings of the same subject, as well as presaging Matisse’s own future explorations on Spanish themes, from Femme à la tambourin (1909) and Le châle de manille (1911) to a 1923 series depicting his favorite Nice model Henriette as a mantilla-clad señorita. Around the same time that Bevilacqua posed for Le Guitariste, Matisse enlisted a gray-bearded man to sit for him in a monk’s habit and paid a Beaux-Arts costume model to impersonate the actor Lucien Guitry playing Cyrano de Bergerac. Even Amélie agreed to dress up, donning the same costume that Bevilacqua wears here and perching on a kitchen chair strumming a guitar. Tensions were running high in the household, though, and the modeling session ended when she threw down the instrument in frustration and Matisse kicked over his easel in response—whereupon they both burst out in cathartic laughter.
Whereas the subject matter of Le Guitariste represents a nod to tradition, the execution of the canvas is audaciously modern, ahead of its time. In nearly all the pictures that Matisse created in conservative Bohain during 1902-1903, he opted for a muted, tonal palette—“a return to the soft harmonies and close values,” he wrote to fellow painter Simon Bussy, “that will certainly be better received by collectors” (quoted in J. Flam, Matisse, The Man and His Art, Ithaca, 1986, p. 82). Here, by contrast, he laid down the background in vivid shades of yellow, pink, and orange, which gain in intensity from their juxtaposition to cooler, more neutral tones. The face of the guitarist is enlivened with slabs of non-naturalistic color—yellow and orange for the brows, coral for the ear and mouth—that anticipate the dazzling orchestrations of pure pigment that Matisse would create during his transformative Fauve summer at Collioure in 1905. “The essential thing is to spring forth,” he declared, “to express the bolt of lightning one senses upon contact with a thing. The function of the artist is not to translate an observation but to express the shock of the object on his own nature; the shock, with the original reaction” (quoted in ibid., p. 85).
The composition of Le Guitariste is also highly innovative. The arrangement of broad, planar forms in the background calls attention to the underlying modernist grid, anticipating Matisse’s radically condensed masterpiece on the theme of music, La leçon de piano (1916). The length of toile de Jouy at the left in the present painting would become a veritable talisman for Matisse during the ensuing years, eventually bursting beyond its naturalistic confines to become the motif of the whole composition. Here, Matisse visualized the textile in shades of gray rather than its actual blue, abstracting the design of floral bouquets and leafy arabesques into an all-over pattern of active, sinuous marks that galvanizes the picture surface. “Even when he centered the figure on the canvas,” Jack Flam has noted, “Matisse tended to work from the edges in rather than out from the center, avoiding excessive focus on the ‘subject’ by activating the entire picture. All elements of the painting are given equal emphasis and all parts of the surface are worked with equal intensity” (ibid., pp. 93-94).
As a guide through the formal problems that Matisse was confronting at this time, no artist was more important to him than Cézanne. “If you only knew the moral strength, the encouragement that his remarkable example gave me all my life!” Matisse later declared. “In moments of doubt, I thought: ‘If Cézanne is right, I am right.’ Because I knew that Cézanne had made no mistake” (quoted in J. Flam, Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 80). The most prized work in Matisse’s small collection was Cézanne’s Trois baigneuses (Rewald, no. 360), which he acquired from Vollard in December 1899. Some three years later, in Le Guitariste, he used a faceted, Cézannesque stroke to integrate the weighty, volumetric figure with the flat, rectilinear forms of the background, creating a dynamic and fluid pictorial ensemble. “Matisse learned from Cézanne how volumes could be accommodated to the flat surface of the painting,” John Elderfield has written, “how volumes could be created from a cumulative mass of broad flat touches of pigment that both belonged to the surface and denoted space” (Matisse, New York, 1978, p. 30).
Ever on the lookout for promising new talent, Vollard had made his first purchases from Matisse in November 1901, a few months after he gave the young Picasso his breakthrough exhibition in Paris. Matisse began to court Vollard for a solo show—the very first of his career—during the summer of 1903, but the shrewd dealer took his time in committing; the exhibition finally opened in June 1904, with 45 canvases on view tracing Matisse’s development as a modernist from 1896 onward. Of the three Guitaristepaintings—two of Bevilacqua and one of Amélie—two were featured in this landmark show; the present version, which Vollard is thought to have acquired sometime that year, was very possibly one of them. Matisse also included a pair of Guitaristes among the fourteen paintings that he exhibited at the 1904 Salon d’Automne, most of which had been shown at Galerie Vollard in June. The present canvas remained in Vollard’s collection at the time of his death in 1939.
Christie's. Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale, New York, 13 May 2019