In 1930, Matisse embarked on a long trip to Tahiti, stopping off in the United States. He saw New York for the first time and was fascinated by the skyscrapers, lights and Harlem musicals. He discovered the African-American district of the city, which was experiencing a complete Renaissance, and encountered intellectuals including Du Bois and Alain Locke, musicians such as Louis Amstrong and Billie Holiday, and photographers like James Van der Zee, who were championing modern black urban culture.
Matisse, who had steeped himself in the sounds of jazz from records provided by his son Pierre, a New York gallery owner, frequented the clubs of Harlem, notably the legendary Connie’s Inn. He returned to France imbued with jazz rhythms mingled with an appreciation of the colours and plants of Tahiti.
This experience was the crucible of his last works. From this point forward, he worked with several mixed race models: Elvire Van Hyfte, from the Belgian Congo, who embodied Asia in a fine painting in 1946; Carmen Lahens, from Haiti, who posed for drawings for Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, in a faint nod to the poet’s mistress Jeanne Duval; and also Katherine Dunham, founder of a Caribbean dance company in the late 1940s, who inspired the painter to produce one of his last large cut-outs – Creole Dancer (1951). With its concise and graphic figures, Matisse’s drawing has an affinity with the improvised melody line of jazz.
Manet’s Olympia represents a milestone in modern art with its complexity and formal power, which has inspired artists and been deconstructed at will in such diverse forms as Cézanne’s re-readings, Gauguin’s copy of 1891, Matisse’s Odalisques, and the numerous reinterpretations of the Harlem Renaissance, Pop Art and contemporary art.
The twin presence of black and white figures is central to re-readings of the painting. The formal interplay focusing on these two colours and the contrast between reclining and standing poses challenges notions of the ethnic, social and sexual identity of the two women, and relationships between the West and Africa, thus providing a genuine aesthetic resource for future generations of artists.