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  • “There are only very few nudes in Japanese paintings. Even painters like Harunobo or Utamaro let only appear a portion of the knee or the leg, and these were the restricted area where they could represent the skin sensation. This is what encouraged me to paint nudes again after eight years of break with the clear objective of depicting the most beautiful material that can be: human’s skin.” 
    — Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita


    Depicting a red-haired beauty posing on tussled bed sheets, Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita’s sensuous Reclining Nude delivers charm and romance through delicate use of oil colours, exuding a translucence that gives the image an air of Asian ink painting. An exceptional example of this Japanese-French artist’s female nude paintings, the work portrays the reclining body of one of his most famous lovers, Madeleine Lequeux, whom Foujita fell in love with in Paris in 1930.


    An important figure of the School of Paris, Foujita spent most of his life in the French capital, far from his native Tokyo. After arriving in Paris in 1913, Foujita quickly gained fame in the local art scene for his style that hybridises Asian techniques and European genres. In the 1930s, with his new darling, Madeleine, Foujita left Paris to travel around Latin America and revisit Japan. Reclining Nude depicts the muse who accompanied Foujita on this global trip, and encapsulates what he values most in his work: beauty and elegance.





    Photo of Foujita and Lucie Badoud, model and muse


    The Female Form Remastered


    Comprising a large portion of his oeuvre, the female nude is a subject Foujita vigorously and actively explored in his East-meets-West practice. Although it is a genre heavily associated with Western iconography, many of Foujita’s nude paintings were styled with calligraphic brushworks and flat perspectives, which suggest a visual language deeply rooted in traditional Asian art, demonstrating the cross-cultural nature of his works.


    The present work is immediately reminiscent of the flat visual planes central to early East Asian art, in particular to ukiyo-e (literally ‘picture[s] of the floating world’) produced in the artist’s native Japan. Characterised by bold flat lines, ukiyo-e woodblock works depicted scenes rendered within a single depth of plane, with forms set against flat spaces. Shunga pieces—that is, a form of Japanese erotic art—often produced as a type of ukiyo-e, depicted tantalising scenes through the same simple aesthetics. Citing Kitagawa Utamaro (one of the most highly regarded artists in this category) as even being conservative in his depiction of skin, Foujita expanded upon these traditions of shunga to create his flirtatious and elegant nudes.




    Kitagawa Utamaro, A Woman and a Cat, circa 1793-94
    Collection of The Metropolitan Museum, New York



    In Reclining Nude, the lithe body of Madeleine is a combination of both erotica and purity: Her left elbow gently presses against the soft sheets to support her upper body, while her right arm languidly spreads on the pillow, holding a suggestive white handkerchief at her fingertips. She beckons the viewers with an enchanting gaze, yet her body is situated against large areas of milky white, a symbol of purity, to evoke a playful contrast.


    With its elaborate arrangement of beddings, reclining body posture and exquisite expressions of beauty, Reclining Nude also elicits an interesting comparison to Venus of Urbino (1538), a High Renaissance masterpiece by Titian that depicts the naked body of the Roman goddess of love, as well as Olympia (1863), a radical parody of the former by Modernist icon Édouard Manet. Portraying a reclining, naked body against white bed linens, the strikingly similar composition of the two works is deeply rooted in and intertwined with Western iconography. For Foujita, he clearly saw the historical significance of this composition and subject matter, reflected in the appropriated compositional form of Reclining Nude. Yet the work also shows a contrasting style associated with Foujita’s Japanese cultural heritage, alluding to his possible attempt to delve into Western art traditions and challenge its classical canon.





    1) Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538, Collection of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence
    2) Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris



    Some of Foujita’s contemporaries shared his interest in depicting the female form. In particular, Chinese-French painter Sanyu, who was also an active figure in the early 20th Century Paris, produced a number of nude paintings that weaved together European and Asian aesthetics though rendering figures in calligraphic brushworks. Similarly interlacing different cultural elements in their works, Sanyu and Foujita were both propelled by the artistic freedom and unrestricted exploration of the nude genre. While Foujita renders beautiful women in meticulous and descriptive lines and colours, Sanyu experimented with efficient, elliptical, and modulated brushstrokes.





    Sanyu, Four Nudes, 1950s
    Collection of the National Museum of History, Taiwan



    Capturing his Muse


    The story of Foujita and Madeleine is an adventurous one. After breaking up with his second wife, Lucie “Youki” Badoul in 1931, Fouijta took the young beauty as his third muse. A hostess during the day and dancer at night at a local casino, Madeleine charmed the Paris circle of artists with her fiery red hair and clear blue eyes. Foujita’s portraits of Madeleine soon appeared after the artist’s split from Youki, and show a sensuality unprecedented in his previous works.


    In 1931, the pair embarked on a two-year journey to Latin America, where they were welcomed with much fanfare. During their sojourn in Brazil in that same year, Foujita held a solo exhibition at the Royal Hotel in Rio de Janeiro. The exhibition was well received by local art critics and collectors alike and went on to be exhibited in São Paulo the following spring. An exceptional example of Foujita’s oeuvre from this period, Reclining Nude is a testament to a particularly fruitful period of his life, with Madeleine as his model.


    Rendered to perfection on the canvas, Madeleine’s skin exhibits a sculptural, ivory-like texture achievable only through the employment of various secret techniques, including the signature “Foujita white”: Grand Fond Blanc (“Milky White”). The undisclosed ingredients of the pigment have long been speculated, though the brilliance of Foujita’s porcelain figures are unrivalled.



    “I decided to bring a life to my works by using paints wildly and apply colours thickly. I didn’t use much colour, mainly black and white. While others used a thick brush, I instead tried to create an oil painting by using a fine writing brush.” 
    — Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita  


    The wide range of method and media employed by the artist is key to his inimitable aesthetic. In order to create undulating shadows and halftones within his works, Foujita would use a charcoal powdered cotton ball to pat onto the surface of his paintings. Then, coupled with the seeping of white pigment into the surface of the painting, his subjects would thus be sculpted by softened, hazy outlines. This attention to detail is palpable in the present work: Madeleine’s supple body is lovingly captured, the smoothness of her skin exquisitely replicated. This softness of tone is juxtaposed with Foujita’s razor-sharp brushstrokes steeped in sumi-e ink, as a seamless thin line outlines her entire body. Finally, the artist’s Grand Fond Blanc: a secret glaze that enshrouds the work and injects a certain air of mystery.


    A hint of erotica hovers in the ambiance of the empty background in Reclining Nude. Madeleine’s enchanting gaze and pouting lips, complimented by the folds of the bed sheet caused by her languid pose, all suggest lustful longing. The white handkerchief held gently at her fingertips is redolent of the known visual symbol in shunga - reflecting Foujita’s intention of referencing past traditions. The over all effect is a stunning work that no doubt captures its viewers’ boundless imaginations.



    Collector’s Digest


    An eccentric icon of the early 20th century School of Paris, the Tokyo-born Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita bridges traditions and modernity in his cross-cultural practice, which spans works depicting female nudes and cats with masterful techniques rooted in Japanese art tradition. His recent posthumous retrospectives were held at Pola Museum of Art in Hakone (17 Apr – 5 Sept 2021), Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art (31 July 31 – 8 October 2018), and Musée Maillol in Paris (7 Mar – 15 July 2018). His work can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., among others.

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    • Description

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    • Provenance

      Ambassador João Luiz Guimarães Gomes (acquired directly from the artist in 1931)
      Collection of Leila Rodrigues Gomes
      Private Collection, Latin America (by descent from the above)
      Phillips, Hong Kong, 26 November 2017, lot 61
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Property of an Important Asian Collector


Reclining Nude

signed, inscribed and dated 'Tsuguharu [in Kanji] Foujita 1931' lower right
oil on canvas
65.5 x 80.7 cm. (25 3/4 x 31 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1931, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by Sylvie Buisson.

Full Cataloguing

HK$12,000,000 - 18,000,000 

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Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art
+852 2318 2026
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 30 November 2021