Matisse began preparations for this painting in Nice in the winter and spring of 1926 and 1927 by first making a full-scale cartoon (private collection, Turin),1 perhaps the first such cartoon made since that for Le luxe 1 1907 (Musée Nationale d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris).2 It was probably the largest painting he had attempted since Le thé 1919 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bequest of David L. Loew in Memory of his Father, Marcus Loew) and its size and unusual mythological subject-matter reflect a decisive move away from the intimate, naturalistic interiors that had characterised his paintings in the intervening years.3 In its arcadian mood, its spare, simplified composition and its combination of outline drawing and thinly washed colour, The abduction of Europa harks back to Matisse's earlier works, such as Le luxe 1 from the period around 1906-10.
The shift in style may well have been associated—as so often it was in Matisse's career—with a change of studio. The conception of The abduction of Europa in cartoon form in the winter-spring of 1926-27 coincides with his move from the third to the top floor of 1, Place Charles-Félix, Nice, an airy, lighter apartment. It has been suggested that Europa may well have been inspired by the sight of his sculpture Large seated nude 1925 silhouetted against the sea and sky of the Mediterranean before the large picture window of one of the rooms Matisse used as a studio.4
From the cartoon—for which the model was clearly Henriette Darricarrère, or perhaps Henriette as already metamorphosed in the sculpture Large seated nude 1925—Matisse began working on the painting in his Nice apartment in the winter of 1927-28.5 The painting was then reworked in the winter of 1928-29 to its present state which, although unfinished, Matisse felt should be reproduced in a book of his work published in 1929.6 When André Masson visited Matisse in 1932 he remembered it hanging on its own in a room of the Nice apartment.7
In spite of many reworkings of the cartoon before the design was transferred to canvas, the painting did not come easily, as the numerous pentimenti attest. To the visitor Michel Georges-Michel, Matisse commented:
If it weren't in the safe at the bank, I would show you a canvas, 'Europa and the Bull', on which I have worked for three years, and I shall probably have to work on it for quite a while longer. Some people imagine that you can turn out canvases like mass-produced cars. for that picture alone I have already made there thousand sketches—yes, three thousand.8
This is perhaps a little exaggerated, yet given Matisse's method of working, of constantly anthologising his own work, this painting takes up yet again the theme of the reclining nude that preoccupied him throughout his career, and particularly in the 1920s, not only in his drawings but also in his paintings, prints and sculptures.9
Sculpture, in particular the Large seated nude 1925, informed Matisse's first thoughts on the pose of Europa, as the cartoon demonstrates, and such details as the ridge in the chest just below the breasts, drawn with a knife in the clay of the sculpture, survive even in the final state of the painting.10 On the other hand, Matisse's latest thoughts on the painting, recorded in charcoal annotations to the left arm, the articulation of hair and facial features, and that liquid transition from abdomen to thigh, parallel features arrived at in the sculpture Reclining nude III 1929, which he worked on in Nice contemporaneously with his final campaign on the painting.
Matisse subsequently used the composition of The abduction of Europa in one of his illustrations for Pierre de Ronsard's Florilèges des amours de Ronsard (Florilege of the loves of Ronsard) (Paris: Albert Skira, 1948, p.22).
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.162.
- On 22 June 1927, about to leave Nice for Paris, Matisse wrote to his wife in Paris, 'je me suis aperçu après fermeture de la caisse que j'avais oublié d'y mettre le carton de l'Europe . . .' (I noticed after closing the crate that I have forgotten to enclose the cartoon of Europa). Again after his return to Nice from Paris Matisse wrote to his wife on 9 October 1927, 'Pierre m'a dit que tu pars le 20. N'oublie pas la montre de Renoir et le dessin de l'Europe' (Pierre [Matisse] told me that you are leaving on the 20th. Do not forget Renoir's watch and the drawing of Europa). (Information supplied by Wanda de Guébriant, Matisse Archives, Paris; correspondence with the Gallery, 10 August 1983.)
- A number of cartoons have been documented for Matisse's earlier paintings. Cartoons occur for Luxe, calme et volupté 1904-05 (see Henri Matisse: Dessins et sculpture, Paris: Musée Nationale d'Art Moderne, 1975 (exhibition catalogue), cat. no. 82), Le luxe 1 1907 (ibid., cat. no. 30), Le Port d'Abaill 1905 (see John Elderfield, The Drawings of Henri Matisse, London: Thames and Hudson, 1984 (exhibition catalogue), cat. no. 12. In conversation with the authors in October Elderfield pointed out that the lines of this drawing are pricked, indicating that it was used as a cartoon and not made after the painting as had been originally suggested in the catalogue entry cited above, and probably for Bonheur de vivre 1905-06 (see Elderfield, The Wild Beasts: Fauvism and Its Affinities, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1976, p.102, n.25; and Jack Flam, Matisse: The Man and His Art 1869-1918, Thames and Hudson, 1986, p.156, n.7).
- John Elderfield has pointed out that this was only the second time that Matisse had used a 'specifically mythological subject' (the first was Nymph and Faun 1909, present whereabouts unknown); see Elderfield, The Drawings of Henri Matisse, op. cit., p.96). Picasso's Minotaur has been suggested as a possible influence on Matisse's unusual choice of this mythological subject. However, the Minotaur makes its first appearance in Picasso's work on 1 January 1928, in the large collage on canvas so dated, Minotaur (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris), thus post-dating Matisse's work on the Europa cartoon.
- For the dating of Matisse's move from the third to the top floor of 1, Place Charles-Félix, see Jack Cowart, 'The Place of Silvered Light: An Expanded, Illustrated Chronology of Matisse in the South of France, 1916-1932', in Jack Cowart and Dominique Fourcade, Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice, Washington: National Gallery of Art (exhibition catalogue), 1986, p.36, n.77. The idea that Europa may have been prompted by the sight of the Large seated nude 1925 before the picture window has been made by Felicity St John Moore, 'New Light on "The rape of Europa" by Henri Matisse', Art and Australia, vol. 24, no. 4, Winter 1987, pp.476-7.
- The Gallery possesses a photograph of Matisse seated in front of the painting in its first stage, taken in Nice in 1928. The archive assembled by Madame Claude Duthuit, Paris, contains other photographs of Matisse taken on the same day with his model Zita who posed for him at the end of 1927 and in 1928.
- On 11 July 1929 Matisse wrote to his daughter Marguerite, who was working with Florent Fels to produce the book Henri Matisse (Paris: Chroniques du Jour, 1929), 'Je vais t'envoyer la peinture de l'Europe qui fera peut-être bien en photo car les lignes ont été assez reprises' (I am going to send you the painting of Europa which will perhaps be good in a photo for the lines have been made strong enough). (Information supplied by Wanda de Guébriant, correspondence with the Gallery, 10 August 1983.) As it turned out, the drawing, not the painting, was reproduced in the Fels publication.
- André Masson, 'Conversations avec Henri Matisse', Critique, revue générale, vol. 30, May 1974, pp.393-9, p.396: 'Il n'y a sur les murs d'une autre salle qu'un seul tableau du maître: L'enlèvement d'Europe, un des rares tableaux de Matisse d'inspiration mythologique et, partant, d'autant plus précieux; en dehors de cela très beau et majestueusement équilabré'. The American collector Albert Eugene Gallatin (1881-1952) also visited and photographed Matisse in his apartment in Nice in 1932, and one such photograph shows Matisse before Europa and the bull (reproduced in Cowart and Fourcade, op. cit., p.254, fig. 30).
- Michel Georges-Michel, From Renoir to Picasso, London: Victor Gollancz, 1957, p.37.
- Alfred Barr saw the cartoon for Europa as the 'climax' of Matisse's long preoccupation with the pose of the reclining nude (Alfred H. Barr Jr, Matisse, his Art and his Public, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951, p.213, n.3).
- The connection between the cartoon and the sculpture is so close as to suggest that the sculpture served directly as the inspiration for the drawing, in the same way that, twenty years before, work on the sculpture Reclining nude 1 1907 prompted the painting Blue nude 1907 (Cone Collection, Baltimore Museum of Art).
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010