Henri Matisse at his Home, ‘Le Rêve’, by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Matisse first sat for Henri Cartier-Bresson at the end of 1943 – the same year that the photographer had escaped from a German labour camp – then continued to have sittings through the first few months of 1944. The world-famous artist had duodenal cancer and believed himself to be dying. Matisse hated to be photographed and during his sittings, Cartier-Bresson would sit in the corner of the room in silence for hours whilst the artist and his model, Lydia Delectorskaya, continued their work. The photograph hence shows the artist with a pencil in one hand and a dove in the other, with a sketchbook open on his lap.

The cages surrounding Matisse highlight his passion in collecting birds from local markets. As well as doves, he kept songbirds, and would allow all of them to fly freely around the house, which was shared with his cats. Although absent from his paintings, birds are key forms in Matisse’s cut-outs. Later, he gifted four doves to Picasso, who used them as successful models for his artwork. Cartier-Bresson’s photograph exists as an important document which depicts Matisse as accurately as can be, in his home environment.

On one of his visits, Cartier-Bresson took one of his own gouaches to show Matisse. On viewing the painting, Matisse took a box from his pocket and said, “my box of matches does not disturb me any more than what you have painted.” When he had returned to Paris on completion of the series, Cartier-Bresson realised that he had left the films in his hotel and had to rush back across the country, through all the checkpoints that littered wartime France, in order to retrieve them. Matisse would later design the cover of Cartier-Bresson’s seminal 1952 publication Images à la Sauvette (The Decisive Moment).

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