It’s hard to be precise about what’s going on in this deceptively simple 1924 picture by Henri Matisse. In French, it’s called “La séance de trois heures,” which translates to “The Three O’Clock Sitting.” The title refers to a painting session, so you might assume it refers to Matisse’s painting session. But one of the two people in the picture sits at an easel, so it may refer to her painting session. And, of course, a third possibility is that Matisse and she are painting the same model at the same time.
“The Three O’Clock Sitting,” which is three feet high, is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The purple-and-white stripes visible beneath the window were a key element in many of Matisse’s compositions from this time, as was the window itself with its view to the sea and signature palm tree. What was extremely unusual was the male nude. His presence, combined with the female painter and the implied presence of Matisse himself, creates a fascinating dynamic.
Matisse had recently moved into a new flat on the third floor of a building on a square in Nice’s old town, a block or two from the beach. Parts of Nice felt like a giant film set during these years as the town competed to be Europe’s answer to Hollywood. As Hilary Spurling writes in her biography of the artist, Matisse was constantly coming across extras in costume, fake rainstorms created by firemen’s hoses, and directors with megaphones.
A fad for Orientalism was sweeping the silent cinema, and filmmakers were building elaborate sets replicating Moorish palaces, gardens and harems. Matisse found all this contagious. “Everything was fake, absurd, amazing, delicious,” he said of his Nice period work.
Blending illusion and reality, he became obsessed, too, with combining disparate patterns. Here, you can see the repeating design on the wallpaper, the pierced and appliquéd fabric from North Africa behind the male model, the colorful rug on which he stands, and the painter’s white-spotted blue dress. A “pattern,” too, was created by the doubling of the two figures in the armoire’s mirror.
Matisse’s touch is so relaxed, his invention so transparent (he painted what was in front of him) that you can overlook the tension created by the picture’s complexity. Only a true master could prevent so many miscellaneous elements turning into a hot mess of jostling forms and clashing colors. Notice how sturdily the black window frame holds the whole thing together.
The woman seated at the easel was a violinist and dancer named Henriette Darricarrère. Between 1920 and 1927, Henriette posed for scores of Matisse paintings. He first saw her working as a film extra on studio lots on the outskirts of Nice. She was gradually folded into Matisse’s family. As the years went by and Matisse’s children, who had posed for so many of his earlier pictures, became more caught up in their own lives, Darricarrère (and occasionally her younger brothers, one of whom is the nude model here) took their place.
Matisse and Darricarrère also shared the same violin teacher. They liked to play duets at the end of painting sessions. But Darricarrère suffered from debilitating stage fright. When she agreed to be the soloist in a concerto at a public Sunday concert, the preparations took her to the cusp of a mental breakdown. She performed brilliantly but decided afterward to put more of her energies into painting. Matisse gave her lessons, and it is likely one of those lessons — an afternoon session — that he depicts here.
Darricarrère’s paintings initially met with success, both in Nice and in Paris. But she suffered — as did Matisse’s own daughter, Marguerite — from chronic illnesses. Always in and out of hospital, she was, by 1927, too frail to continue posing. She married a schoolteacher, had a daughter, and in due course, that daughter posed, just as Darricarrère had, for Matisse.