Art historian Ellen McBreen ponders the role of Henri Matisse’s muse, model, and collaborator, Lydia Delectorskaya, in this iconic painting
In the 1930s Matisse was accused of paying closer attention to décor and accessories than to the human beings posing for him. One critic described his models as almost soulless objects “charged with decorating the space.” Indeed, the exuberant theatricality of the costume in Woman in Blue does appear to upstage Lydia Delectorskaya, a somewhat aloof mannequin covered in voluminous puffs of taffeta and white organza ruffles. Black and white beads embellish but also immobilize her right hand, seemingly a metaphor for the suspension of individual agency in favor of rhythmic ornamentation.
And yet, as Matisse would insist, his models were never just props. The emotional intensity of their encounter, he explained, was distributed onto the whole of his canvas, and in the invention of “plastic signs [that] probably express their souls.” Woman in Blue could be said to narrate that process of sublimation. Ten photographs recording its development reveal transformations made to the initially naturalistic pose of Delectorskaya leaning against the arm of a settee.
In the final version, she is a hieratic icon hovering upright against her throne, haloed by a golden crown of mimosas. It is difficult to read her as either sitting or standing, thanks in part to the visible reworking of her skirt into a more symmetrical bell shape. Delectorskaya does not decorate the space; rather, it is animated in response to her. The migration of the red wall down into the cushion and the waves of the black floor rising up to meet her leg-of-mutton sleeves flatten three-dimensionality into a jeweled surface to adorn her.
As if to remind us of the depth and duration of the human engagement behind those abstract signs, Matisse includes other images on the wall, like the drawing of Delectorskaya, Head of a Woman with Chin in Palm (1937; Pushkin Museum, Moscow), executed a few months earlier. This work on paper belongs to a long series of related images, all variations of her wearing a collar, jabot, and other parts of this complex outfit of her design.
Woman in Blue is the summation of that history of performance and observation, poetically suggested here in the way the drawing, colored translucent blue, borrows from the world of the painting it inhabits. The interdependence of the two media—the intensity of drawing sessions allowing for the “apparent ease” of painting—is also signaled by the graphite marks of her left eye on raw canvas, peering out from under the colored surface.
After modeling sessions, Delectorskaya usually shifted roles to work on the other side of the easel, scraping down areas of unwanted paint to prepare Matisse for the next day’s work. Underlying colors, like the red beneath the blue in the torso under her raised arm, are the still-visible traces of this collaborative process. Delectorskaya’s agency is present in almost imperceptible ways, but rarely is it directly portrayed. With earnings from modeling, Delectorskaya soon purchased Head of a Woman, the very first work of what would become a vast Matisse collection she donated to museums in her native country.
Thus another of her many roles is foreshadowed by Woman in Blue: Delectorskaya as an astute patron of the arts, assessing Matisse with a powerful if inscrutable gaze.
Claude Roger-Marx, “Les dessins d’Henri Matisse” (1938), trans. in Matisse: A Retrospective, ed. Jack Flam (New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1988), 324–25.
Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter on His Drawing” (1939), in Matisse on Art, ed. and trans. Jack Flam, rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 130. As Flam proposes, this essay—originally published in Le Point in July 1939— was prompted by a desire to refute some of Roger-Marx’s charges.
Lydia Delectorskaya, With Apparent Ease. . . Henri Matisse: Paintings from 1935–1939, trans. Olga Tourkoff (Paris: Adrien Maeght, 1988).
Wanda de Guébriant, “Lydia Delectorskaya, biographie,” in Dominique Szymusiak et al., Lydia D.: Lydia Delectorskaya, muse et modèle de Matisse, exh. cat. (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2010), 204. The drawing is reproduced on p. 25. It would eventually be given to the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
Ellen McBreen, PhD, is a professor and Chair of the History of Art Department at Wheaton College, Massachusetts.