Lydia Delectorskaya – Matisse’s Last Muse

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.

lydia-with-dress

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:

matisse-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:

mpm_112

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:

yq

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.”

20 thoughts on “Lydia Delectorskaya – Matisse’s Last Muse

  1. swatch says:

    Another poignant vignette – thanks – Matisse sounds like a great guy

    • artmodel says:

      Swatch,

      Glad you enjoyed it. Matisse is definitely one of the better guys. And I was touched by Lydia’s unwavering devotion to him for all those years.

      Claudia

  2. Great blog and thanks for bookmarking my theory of music blog.

  3. mona says:

    i love your blog!

  4. Outstanding………..thanks for sharing.

  5. lkwinter says:

    What’s amazing is how you put such research into your work, and then present the material with such seeming effortlessness, the words just roll off the page. You have great skill.

    You are an amazing woman.

    • artmodel says:

      Awww, Scott. You’re so sweet to me. “Amazing” is a strong word, but I’ll take it without resistance 🙂

      I’m very, very pleased to hear that words “roll off the page”. Given how prone I am to verbosity, that’s definitely a good thing!

      Many, many thanks for your generous compliments.

      Claudia

  6. bill kooistra says:

    My wife and I are currently in Nice and just toured the Matisse Museum this afternoon. The current exhibition in the museum features the sketches and paintings of Lydia D. Thanks for the background information in regards to their relationship. As we toured the exhibit, we were struck by the depths of the intimacy between Matisse and Lydia–an intimacy clearly implicit in the works. To read on your website that the intimacy remained rooted in creativity and compassionate love adds to the depth and integrity of the art and the humanity of the relationship.

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      I can’t thank you enough for sharing your experience at the Matisse Museum. What a treat to read! I too was struck by the close bond shared by Matisse and Lydia and the profound mutual respect that existed between them. As you observed, it’s evident in the work, and that’s the best testament there is.

      I very much appreciate your comments, Bill. Continue to enjoy your visit in Nice!

      Claudia

  7. Shannon Leigh says:

    This blog is great, it really descibes who Lydia Delectorskaya was and what she believed in.This really helped me to complete my art project about Henri matisse’s life and who were in it.I love the quotes from the books, they’re really helpful.I took a challenge on of doing an art project to show my potential in art.Im only 13 nearly 14 but I like to do loads of school work, I have already passed 5 gsce.(Up coming year is year 9).

    Hope you appreciate my comment

    Shannon x

    • artmodel says:

      Shannon,

      I am so delighted to read your comment and thrilled that you came to this blog through your research 🙂 You could not have picked a better subject for your art project than the master Matisse. He used many models throughout his long and prolific career, and his daughter Marguerite sat for him many times.

      I also liked school work when I was your age. And I still continue to write about subjects that interest me. I bet your report is going to be amazing!

      Shannon, you made my day. Thank you for posting a comment. Write to me directly if you ever need any more help in your art assignments. Keep up the good work!

      Claudia

  8. Janet says:

    Does anyone know what happened to Lydia after Matisse died? I just finished reading his biography but it ends with his passing and her departure.

  9. Jude Harzer says:

    Dear Claudia,
    Your blog is insightful, well written and inspiring. As an artist and as an educator, your content is greatly appreciated. As a painter, I have several muses, among them, my own children.I feel as though I have happened upon yet another in discovering your words, images and beauty. Thank you. May you continue to inspire!
    Jude:)

    • artmodel says:

      Jude,

      I am so touched by your comments. Thank you! Since this blog’s inception I’ve tried to be all those things you mentioned – insightful, inspiring, etc – and for Museworthy to be a place people enjoy visiting.

      I’m so happy you have found me. And you are a wonderful artist, by the way. Your website is also very inspiring! I will be reading your blog, and I hope you continue to read this one.

      Thanks again for posting your comments, and happy new year!

      Claudia

  10. nathan austin says:

    I wish I knew more about Lydia, unfortunately most of what I find about her life is only in relation to Matisse. This article, however, was very well written, helpful, and enlightening in my search for more information about her life and who she was.
    As an artist, I am fascinated by her. She must have been extraordinary, to share that level of relationship with Matisse, an artist, prone to eccentricity and intense monologue no doubt, more so than others. The relationship they shared is as inspiring as it is encouraging.
    Your eloquence in writing communicated so excellently, the nature of their relationship. Thank you for taking the time to help preserve the memory of an incredible woman, who is sadly overlooked by so many.
    -Nathan

  11. Casey Klahn says:

    Hi, Claudia! As it turns out, I am an intimate of the 1947 hemispheres portrait you posted above. I saw it in St Petersburg, Russia, in 2014. You found one of the better images of it (your blog is top drawer so my compliments). However, no internet can possibly get at the radiance that comes out of this painting. The whole thing vibrates (it is not a large painting) like a power cell; it goes well beyond color compliments. The painting means: love.
    I was reading on The Hermitage website something I did not realize when I was there. Lydia gifted the painting to the museum. Imagine how she received this intimate portrait from the grand master, held onto it for a couple of decades, and then returned it to her (shitty) birth country. Oops! Did I say that? I meant she had roots in Russia that meant more than the sum of her experiences there. I was privileged to have seen it there, and it certainly was a life changer for me.
    Best wishes,
    KC

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