Mourlot, Matisse, and the L’Odalisque Assise

‘What interests me most’, Henri Matisse once wrote in 1908, ‘is neither still life nor landscape but the human figure’. Inspired by his trips to North Africa, the famous Fauvist’s most enduring figures were ‘odalisques’ – women belonging to a harem, often depicted reclining nude or in an erotic state of reverie. We take a closer look at a lithograph by Matisse titled L’Odalisque Assise.

L'Odalisque Assise, Henri Matisse

Matisse came across Galerie Mourlot in 1937. Its owner, the master printer Fernand Mourlot, had established the print shop on the rue Chabrol, one of the most popular neighbourhoods in East Paris in 1895.

Mourlot encouraged leading artists of the day to work directly on limestones in his studio and, keen to cultivate the lithograph as a painter’s medium, he began courting Matisse. 

Henri Matisse inspects a lithographic print with Fernand Mourlot

Though the French painter was initially highly critical and took some convincing, he eventually agreed to produce a lithographic poster of his 1935 painting, La Rêve for the Maitres de l’Art indépendant exhibition at the Petit Palais.

The posters were of such excellent quality that Matisse and Mourlot struck up a lasting friendship, resulting in over 100 original lithographs. 

Fernand Mourlot and Henri Matisse in Gallerie Mourlot printshop

L’Odalisque Assise, which depicts a nude figure reclining on an ornate wooden chair, is an exquisite example of the creative collaboration between the two men.

The word ‘odalisque’ is derived from the Turkish word ‘Odalik’, which means chambermaid or female harem slave. Like many of his Western contemporaries who indulged in fantasies with the East, Matisse strove to recreate interiors he had witnessed on his many trips to former French colonies: Algeria and Morocco.

‘I do odalisques’, Matisse once stated, ‘in order to paint nudes [...] I had seen them in Morocco, and so was able to put them in my pictures back in France without playing make-believe.’ 

After visiting countless bazaars, souks, and market stalls, the French painter amassed an extraordinary treasure-trove of Persian carpets, decorative wall-hangings, cushions, tapestries, mirrors, patterned screens, and elaborate costumes. He called the collection his ‘working library’ and he drew upon it regularly to furnish his odalisque paintings. 

L'Odalisque Assise, Henri Matisse

‘Art should have an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue.’

Henri Matisse

Though L’Odalisque Assise features minimal props, Matisse incorporates several visual signs connecting the painting to its exoticised Moorish inspiration. Beneath a thin wash of ambient yellow, the model wears a decorative veil. She coquettishly raises a hand to her face, drawing attention to brightly coloured bangles and a necklace of thick beads.

L'Odalisque Assise, Henri Matisse

Still working loosely under the style of Fauvism, the artwork uses individual brush strokes and pure colour pigments that move away from naturalistic representation to create a fantasy scene.

The languorous model’s curves are accentuated by darker outlines, and her stylised, piercing black eyes stare directly at the viewer as she suggestively opens a leg and extends it out of the composition. 

L'Odalisque Assise, Henri Matisse

Matisse is well known for stripping his compositions down to create harmony. ‘Composition’, he once mused, ‘is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements at the painter’s disposal for the expression of feelings […] All that is not useful in the picture is detrimental.’ 

For Matisse, art was all about balance, ‘of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter [...] Art should have an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue.’

This original lithographic poster is a limited edition produced by Galerie Mourlot. The print is accompanied by a note written in pencil produced by Mourlot’s Master Printer reading ‘Apres Henri Matisse’ (After Henri Matisse), making it a unique collectors item. Matisse’s signature is also printed in the plate in pink to complement the dominant nude hues of the figure. 

A note in pencil made by Mourlot's master printer reading 'Apres Henri Matisse' (After Henri Matisse)
L'Odalisque Asisse Lithograph featuring Matisse's signature printed in the plate

Further reading

  • Matisse, Henri, Notes d’un peintre, 1908
  • McConnell, Sophie, Metropolitan Jewellery, Metropolitan Museum of Art, United States, 1991
  • Lambert, Susan, Matisse Lithographs, Curwen Press Ltd, Plaistow, London 1972
  • Rewald, Sabine, and Ades, Dawn, Twentieth-century Modern Masters: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, United States, 1989 
  • Spurling et al., Matisse, His Art and His Textiles, The Fabric of Dreams, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2004

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