A nude woman, one who stirs creative inspiration, locked in a studio with a male artist, growing closer and more intimate each day, is a recipe for a sexual affair. It’s happened countless times. So it’s logical to assume that a model-dependent artist like Henri Matisse spent equal time seducing his models as he did painting them. Seems to come with the territory. But unlike many of his peers (namely the predatory Picasso), Matisse abstained from sexual affairs and kept his relationships with his models largely platonic. This is not to say that Matisse was an angel or devoid of a sex drive. He just wasn’t particularly lascivious and exercised comparatively more self-control than you-know-who
This was not, however, any comfort to Madame Matisse, who was still threatened by her husband’s close relationship with Lydia Delectorskaya. A golden-haired beauty from Siberia, Lydia was orphaned at a young age, and managed on her own wits and mettle to flee Russia in its tumultuous post-Revolution years. Somehow she ended up in Nice, France, broke, with no job or connections. As luck would have it, Lydia found employment in the Matisse household as both a studio assistant and domestic.
Matisse’s gentle and civilized manner was a welcome tonic to Lydia’s rootless and itinerant early life. She had met many unkind and untrustworthy people along her journey and endured some hard times, but in the company of Matisse, she found solace and a beneficial, positive influence. Hilary Spurling’s acclaimed and exhaustively researched biography on Matisse, contains great insights into the relationship between Lydia and Matisse. Here’s an excerpt:
It was not for another three years that the painter asked her to sit for him. Lydia was 25, Matisse was 65. She thought of him as a kindly and polite old gentleman because (unlike previous artists, who had taught her to detest modeling) he never pawed at her or tried to take off her clothes. “Gradually I began to adapt and feel less ‘shackled,’ ” she wrote, “ . . . in the end, I even began to take an interest in his work.” . . . Matisse said he came eventually to know her face and body by heart, like the alphabet. The collaboration they established together gave Lydia a new sense of power and purpose.
Matisse’s famous 1947 portrait of Lydia:
Although Lydia insisted that the relationship was strictly platonic, Matisse’s wife was jealous nevertheless. A spouse’s intimate bond with another, even if purely professional or emotional, is often greater cause of jealousy than sex. And the already rocky marriage of Matisse and Amelie was put to the test. Given an ultimatum, “It’s me or her”, Matisse chose his wife over Lydia. The issue was settled, right? Wrong. Madame Matisse still could not get over her feelings of betrayal, and in 1939 she left her husband after 40 years of marriage.
Lydia in the studio:
Lydia returned to her role as Matisse’s studio assistant, and the two friends together braved the turmoil of World War II, and the German invasion of France. They were the closest companions for the rest of Matisse’s life, with Lydia acting as both caretaker and assistant, doting on Henri, seeing to his comfort, keeping him vital, and supporting his later artwork, notably his historic paper cutouts.
Toward the end, the faithful Lydia tends to the frail, aging Matisse:
The bond between Lydia and Matisse proved to be unbreakable. Steadfast, she stayed by his side until his last breath. Again from Spurling’s excellent book, this quote describes their last tender moment, the artist’s final sketch of his trusted and devoted muse:
Matisse died on November 3, 1954. He was 84. The day before, Lydia had come to his bedside with her newly washed hair wound in a towel turban, accentuating the classical severity and purity of the profile Matisse had so often drawn and painted. He sketched her with a ballpoint pen, holding the last drawing he ever made out at arm’s length to assess its quality before pronouncing gravely, “It will do."