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Woman in a Purple Coat (1937): One of Henri Matisse’s Final Oil Paintings

Woman in a Purple Coat exemplifies Matisse’s mature style, characterized by its decorative, fluid, colorful aesthetic. It depicts his assistant Lydia Delectorskaya, who helped him in the last years of his life and was essential to the creation of his last masterpieces. In this article, Singulart takes a closer look at their relationship and at Matisse’s signature style in Woman in a Purple Coat

Who was Henri Matisse?

Henri Matisse, 1913

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was a French artist, renowned as a draftsman, printmaker, sculptor and painter. Matisse was born in Northern France and was the oldest son of a wealthy grain merchant. He grew up in Picardie and in 1887 moved to Paris to study law and worked as a court administrator in Le Cateau-Cambresis. He began to paint in 1889 after his mother bought him art supplies to entertain him while he was recovering from appendicitis. Matisse described the experience of painting as “a kind of paradise” and it was then that he decided to become an artist. Matisse studied at the Academie Julian in Paris from 1891 and was a student of Bouguereau and Moreau. His early works were traditional still lifes, influenced by a wide range of artists, from Manet to Chardin. In 1896, Matisse, an unknown student at the time, was introduced to Impressionism and the work of Van Gogh, by the Australian painter John Russell, who also taught him about color theory which had a profound effect on the development of Matisse’s style. 

Matisse had a daughter with his model Caroline Joblau in 1894 and in 1898 he married Amelie Noelie Parayre with whom he raised Marguerite and their own two sons. The same year as his marriage, Matisse traveled to London and Corsica and worked profusely. He was also an avid collector of other artists’ works and his personal collection included pieces by Rodin, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne. 

Matisse was one of the leaders of the Fauvist movement alongside André Derain. As he developed this neo-impressionist, expressive style, Matisse’s success grew and his reputation spread. In 1905, he traveled to the South to work with Derain in Collioure and his work began to embrace flat shapes, controlled lines and a more fluid brushstroke. In the same year he exhibited with the Fauves at the Salon d’Automne. The Fauvist movement was controversial and was met with strong reactions. At the Armory Show in Chicago in 1913, Matisse’s painting Nu bleu was burned. Despite dividing opinions at the time, today most of what are considered to be Matisse’s great masterpieces were painted during his Fauvist period. 

In 1917, Matisse moved to the French Riviera were his style softened, in line with the Post-War Neoclassical trend. This period of Matisse’s work is characterized by the theme of the oriental odalisque. After surgery for abdominal cancer in 1941, Matisse was left unable to walk or stand which significantly hindered his creative process. He began to create large scale paper cut-out collages with the help of his assistants. His most famous cut-out work was the book Jazz, created in 1943. In 1948, Matisse applied this technique to the design of the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. Matisse died of a heart attack in 1954, aged 84. 

What’s happening in Woman in a Purple Coat? 

Henri Matisse, Woman in a Purple Coat (1937)
Henri Matisse, Woman in a Purple Coat (1937)

Woman in a Purple Coat is an example of Matisse’s mature decorative style, characterized by his expressive use of color, pattern and fluid lines. The painting depicts Matisse’s model and assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya, lounging in a purple coat and exotic trouser suit with a book at her feet, in a colorful decorated interior setting. In oil on a 81 x 65.4 cm canvas, Matisse depicts a joyous, calm everyday scene, full of warm reds and greens, abstract patterns, flowers and fruit. Woman in a Purple Coat was one of Matisse’s final oil paintings before his health worsened and he turned to paper cutouts. 

Lydia Delectorskaya became Matisse’s caretaker and assistant in his final years, after his wife left him. She had moved to France from Tomsk in Siberia, hoping to become a doctor, but the high fees at the Sorbonne bankrupted her and she ended up in Nice where she found part-time work as an assistant for the Matisse family. Lydia modeled for many of Matisse’s most accomplished mature compositions and she began to enjoy their collaboration. Matisse’s wife suspected Matisse of having an affair with Lydia, thus she forced Matisse to choose between the two women. Choosing his wife, Lydia was fired and she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the chest. Remarkably, she recovered, and after Matisse’s wife left him in 1939, she moved with him to Vence where she worked as his assistant and secretary and helped him orchestrate the last great works of his life. Woman in a Purple Coat, with its warmth and beautiful patterned details, exemplifies Matisse’s mature style and is also a testament to the pair’s collaboration, without which many of Matisse’s late masterpieces would never have been achieved. 

Want to see more artworks in a similar style? Discover Singulart’s Inspired by Henri Matisse Collection.

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