Henri Matisse - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Phillips
  • Henri Matisse’s Portrait de femme, executed circa 1917, encapsulates a pivotal moment in the artist’s career, marking the bridge between his time in Paris and his impending move to Nice in the winter of that year. The years leading up to and including 1917 are characterized by experimentation and discourse with Cubism, highlighting the tension Matisse saw between faithfully rendering human likeness and expressing the singularity of one’s own creative vision. During this period, the artist developed a unique approach to painting that would shape his exploration of the figure and the psychological depth of his subjects for decades to come. Beginning in 1916 with a young Italian model named Laurette, sometimes spelled Lorette, who posed for nearly 50 paintings in the year after they met, Matisse painted a series of portraits of female sitters whose versatility of moods and appearances were instrumental to his shift from the Cubist influences of the war period to a more naturalistic and traditional postwar artistic expression. In Portrait de femme, the sitter is believed to be a woman by the name of Madame Bourlet, whom Matisse painted on at least two other occasions, in works now in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. A testament to the intense fervor with which Matisse approached his portraits, Matisse subsequently wrote “The model must mark you, awaken in you an emotion which you seek in turn to express.”i His models were more than muses; they were collaborators in his process, guiding him along the ever-shifting paths of artistic expression. 

    “I say to my model, ‘Imagine a very pleasant story and follow its unfolding.’ Do I dare admit that in this way I create the cinematography of my model’s private feelings? In my work I am as unobtrusive as a cameraman who is standing at the front of a train and who films the various aspects of an unknown countryside.”
    —Henri Matisse

    Portrait de femme has a distinguished provenance and exhibition history, residing in the collections of some of the most prominent American collectors of Modern art over the past century, including Anna Warren Ingersoll. Miss Ingersoll was the sister of Robert Sturgis Ingersoll, who served as Chairman of the Board and President of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from the 1940s through the 1960s. During that time, Portrait de femme was showcased in two major exhibitions at the Philadelphia, including a private collections show in 1947 and a major retrospective the following year. In 1964, following Robert’s retirement, the Ingersoll Family gifted the present painting to the Museum’s collection. Years later, the work was acquired by Harry and Ruth Bakwin and it has remained in the care of their family since. The Drs. Bakwin, both esteemed pediatricians, were prolific collectors who made their foray into the art world shortly after their marriage in Paris in 1925. They amassed a remarkable collection that highlighted the rich tapestry of School of Paris artists, including luminaries such as Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. Their collection began with the purchase of a Renoir oil painting in Paris and grew to encompass seminal works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Modigliani, and Picasso. This collection, often enriched during their annual European trips with their four children, reflected not just their aesthetic appreciation but also their deep engagement with the transformative art movements of the early twentieth century. Beyond their artistic legacy, Harry Bakwin was the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1955–56 and co-authored influential pediatric texts, while Ruth Bakwin held prestigious positions such as the director of pediatrics at the New York Infirmary and was an heir to the Chicago meatpacking fortunes of the Armour and Swift families.


    Vincent van Gogh, L'Arlésienne, Madame Ginoux, 1890. Property of the Bakwin Collection, sold through Christie’s New York for $40,336,000 USD in 2006. Image: © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images

    By 1929, the Bakwins had amassed a collection prominent enough to be included in the Museum of Modern Art's first New York exhibition. This legacy of art and enthusiasm was inherited by their children, fostering a familial tradition steeped in appreciation for the arts. Their son Edward once reflected on the collection's impact, noting, "Each piece has a story, not just of the art but of our family's journey and the eras they encompassed."ii Describing the story of how his parents first embarked on their collecting journey, favoring what was at the time radical and unpopular art, Edward explained "My parents were doing postgraduate medical work in Vienna and Berlin," humorously adding that, "The classes were in the morning, and people drank beer in the afternoon. My parents weren't beer drinkers, so they took up looking at art instead."iii


    Henri Matisse, Head of a Woman, 1917. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania. Image: The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Samuel S. White 3rd and Vera White Collection, 1967, 1967-30-52, Artwork: © 2024 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

    In Portrait de femme, Matisse captures Madame Bourlet in a state of repose, distilling her form to the essentials. She is depicted seated, relaxed into the suggestion of a wooden chair that barely asserts itself against the formless backdrop. The sitter has her hand raised, gently supporting her cheek in a traditional posture of melancholy. Her distant gaze suggests she is rapt by something unseen, imbuing the portrait with an air of introspective longing. She wears what appears to be a plain white blouse—possibly the same one Matisse paints her wearing in Head of a Woman, 1917, part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection. In both works, her dark hair is styled away from her face and closely cropped, accentuating the contours of her face and the formal qualities of the painting.

    “I depend absolutely on my model, whom I observe at liberty, and then I decide on the pose which best suits her nature. When I take a new model, it is from the unselfconscious attitudes she takes when she rests that I intuit the pose that will be suit her, and then I become the slave of that pose.”
    —Henri Matisse

    A departure from the vivid hues characteristic of his earlier Fauvist style, Matisse here employs a subdued palette. His use of color is deliberate and restrained, underscoring the introspective quality of the piece and highlighting the central figure. Her skin is rendered in warm, earthy tones, a counterbalance to the cool, neutral background that seems to both frame and recede behind her. The simplicity of her white blouse draws focus to her face, which is awash with light and shadow. Matisse renders Madame Bourlet’s features with a sculptural quality that gives a palpable sense of volume and solidity. Her brow, cheeks, and chin are modeled with deft strokes that carve out her form in space, reminiscent of the way light plays across the surfaces of a sculpture. The pronounced delineation of her jawline and the contour of her nose give her face a chiseled appearance, emphasizing the three-dimensionality amidst the otherwise flat, neutral backdrop. Matisse's technique here bridges painting and sculpture, lending a tangible presence to the model’s visage.


    Not much is known about who Madame Bourlet was or how Matisse came to know her. What can be said is that the artist was acquainted with Gustave Bourlet, before the Parisian lawyer went on to found the weekly periodical Le Grand écho de l'Aisne in 1919, in Saint-Quentin, in the north of France. Mr. Bourlet had both a sister, Marie-Elise Bourlet, and a wife, Jeannette, so it is possible that Portrait de femme could depict either. According to public record, Jeannette’s maiden name was Jovin, but Matisse was also working at this time with the model Jeanne Vaderin, thought to be the sitter for the artist’s contemporaneous Jeannette series. Portrait de femme coincides with this 6-year inquiry into simplification and what Matisse called “the classification of [his] ideas.”iv “I changed my method… for the purposes of organization to put order into my feeling and find a style to suit me,” he explains, adding “When I found it in sculpture, it helped me in my painting.”v Perhaps the most well-known artworks Matisse produced in this period are the Jeannette busts, a series of five increasingly stylized bronze heads; two of which were modelled from life between 1910 and 1913, and the subsequent three from those earlier versions between 1913 and 1916. In the present portrait and its counterparts at the Philadelphia and Joslyn, a similar distillation of form can be observed as in the progression of the Jeannette works. Matisse dramatically abstracted his sculpted subject, organizing the head into increasingly simplified component parts.


    Henri Matisse, Head of a Woman, 1917. Joslyn Museum of Art, Omaha, Nebraska. Artwork: © 2024 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

    Similarly, Portrait de femme presents a pared down image of Madame Bourlet as compared to the two Head of a Woman portraits, both 1917. In the Joslyn Art Museum’s painting, the sitter is shown clearly against a wooden chair back, looking in the opposite direction, and without her hand against her face. Matisse’s use of line is illustrative, and he includes color variation in her hair, folds in her blouse, and lines on her face. In the Philadelphia’s painting, her pose has settled into what can be seen in the present version. Additionally, Matisse has softened his line to a suggestion, creating forgiving edges between forms, but emphasizing the painterliness of his brushstrokes. The chair is gone, and the composition is close-cropped to include only half her hand and one shoulder. In Portrait de femme, like the final three Jeannette busts, the nose is more aquiline and the shapes of the face more volumetric and elemental. Matisse’s line is bold and defined, his brushstrokes more precise, and his treatment of light and shadow has become the clear focus of the painting. The composition has zoomed out slightly to reflect both the pose and intimate framing of the Philadelphia’s painting, as well as the suggestion of the chair and sense of place found in the Joslyn Art Museum's example. As in Jeannettes III – V, the model’s neck and shoulders have been integrated into a volumetric whole, emphasizing the process of creation, the materiality of the subject, and the expressive properties of the medium.


    Henri Matisse. Jeannette (V). Issy-les-Moulineaux, Summer 1916. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: ©  Museum of Modern Art, New York/Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2024 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

    During the years leading up to Portrait de femme, Matisse engaged in a visual dialogue with the Cubists, the influence of which is evident in the structural rigor and near geometric quality of the present painting. Nevertheless, Portrait de femme reveals a persistent allegiance to the figure and to the sensuality of the natural world. In other works from this period, such as View of Notre-Dame, 1914 and The Piano Lesson, 1916, both in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Bathers by a River, 1916, at the Art Institute of Chicago, Matisse explored the boundaries of representation, dissecting and reconstructing form and space. Yet, in the group of portraits that includes Portrait de femme, Matisse allows the austerity to recede, giving way to a more intimate and personal exploration of his subject. In the present painting we see the culmination of these years of experimentation. Matisse presents us with a figure that is at once a formal exploration of line and color and a deeply human presence. The pale green backdrop against which Madame Bourlet sits serves to heighten the emotional tenor of the piece, while each visible brushstroke creates a sense of temporal immediacy, as if the artist had captured a fleeting moment in the sitter’s life. Through the intimate scale and the resonant psychology of the portrait, Matisse forges a connection with viewers that transcends time, inviting us into a silent dialogue with the past.


    From one canvas, year, and model to the next, Matisse’s portraits reflect his evolving focus. Portrait de femme straightforwardly communicates a private moment of energetic exchange between artist and model, while also negotiating representation, and directing a calculated choreography of presentation. Throughout his life Matisse repeatedly described his artistic process as one of self-searching. In a career spanning sixty years, it was through his continuous immersion in the model—his principal subject—that he ultimately found himself. “After a certain moment,” he wrote of working on one such likeness, “it is a kind of revelation, it is no longer me. I don’t know what I am doing, I am identified with my model.”vi


    i“Hidden Treasures: Matisse and the models who inspired him,” Christie’s, January 31, 2019, online

    iiEdward Bakwin, quoted in Hilarie M. Sheets, “Parting with the Family van Gogh,” The New York Times, April 22 2006, online.


    iv Henri Matisse, quoted in Anne Dumas, Matisse and the Model, New York, 2011, p. 13. 


    vi Ibid., pp. 45, 53.

    • Provenance

      Valentine Gallery, New York (possibly)
      Anna Warren Ingersoll, Penllyn, Pennsylvania (possibly acquired from the above)
      Philadelphia Museum of Art (gifted by the above in 1964)
      Sotheby's, New York, May 10, 1989, lot 345 (consigned by the above)
      Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired at the above sale)
      Galerie Schmit, Paris
      The Drs. Bakwin, New York (acquired from the above by July 4, 2000)
      Thence by descent to the present owners

    • Exhibited

      Philadelphia Museum of Art, Masterpieces of Philadelphia Private Collections, Summer 1947, no. 68, p. 75 (titled Head of Woman)
      Philadelphia Museum of Art, Matisse, 1948, no. 45, pp. 39, 80 (illustrated, p. 80; titled Head of Woman)

    • Literature

      Jean Charlot, “Pinning Butterflies,” Creative Art, May 1933, p. 358 (illustrated; titled Tête de Femme)
      Alexander Romm, Henri-Matisse, Moscow, 1937, no. 24, pp. 74, 85 (illustrated, p. 85; titled Head of Woman; dated 1916)

    • Artist Biography

      Henri Matisse

      French • 1869 - 1954

      The leading figure of the Fauvist movement at the turn of the 20th century, Henri Matisse is widely regarded as the giant of modern art alongside friend and rival Pablo Picasso. Working as a painter, draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor for over five decades, he radically challenged traditional conventions in art by experimenting with vivid colors, flat shapes and distilled line. Rather than modeling or shading to lend volume to his pictures, the French artist employed contrasting areas of unmodulated color. Heavily influenced by the art and visual culture of non-Western cultures, his subjects ranged from nudes, dancers, odalisques, still lifes and interior scenes and later evolved into the graphic semi-abstractions of his cut-outs of his late career. 

      View More Works

Property from the Bakwin Family Collection


Portrait de femme

signed "Henri Matisse" upper right
oil on panel
13 3/4 x 10 1/2 in. (34.9 x 26.7 cm)
Painted circa 1917.

Georges Matisse has kindly confirmed the authenticity of the work.

Full Cataloguing

$600,000 - 800,000 

Sold for $774,700

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206

Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 May 2024