One may well ask, as Henri Matisse was best known for his models being clad in Moroccan or Parisian attire, rather then in Romanian ethnic dress or better still, not clad at all… So, why a Romanian Blouse, out of the blue?
Looking at some of Matisses’s earlier works one could discern the idea in the blouse of the 1939 dancer “Une danseuse au repos”, showing a seated woman wearing a Romanian blouse. Likewise, another of Matisse’s paintings, “Still Life with sleeping woman” , now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC . The sitter is a woman wearing an embroidered long-sleeve blouse, decorated on the upper part of the sleeve similarly to the Romanian blouses. An even earlier version, with prevailing greens appears in 1937. So, from these and other examples, one could suggest unequivocally, that the idea was not new in the artist’s mind. However, what was new on this occasion, in 1940, was that the Romanian Blouse had become central to the subject, forcing it on ‘front stage’ and giving it a specific, named identity. The canvass must have been discussed, if not prompted by the visit of an old friend the Romanian painter Theodor Pallady (1871-1956), whose portrait was sketched by Matisse, in Nice, in 1940. The friendship between Matisse and the Romanian Pallady went back to their time together at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris (1891-1900). Throughout their long correspondence a close affinity developed between the French and the Romanian painter. Quite apart from the closeness in style and demeanor, the two friends shared a great complicity, amongst which the image of Romanian muses, much in view in 20th century France, was a recurring subject. In his correspondence, Matisse would accompany his letters by sketches and would use Pallady as a sounding board, sometimes talking about his artistic and personal anxieties.
In this context, the theme of the Romanian Blouse becomes more significant. It was painted in 1940, during one of the darkest periods of the war, which the country had experienced under Nazi occupation. Matisse was soon going to abandon Nice, which was being bombed by German planes, for the relative security of the ‘arriere-pays’, in Vence. Reading some of the artist’s diaries of that period one could detect that the cheerfulness of the Romanian Blouse was acting like an antidote, as it represented a glimmer of optimism and of hope.
La Blouse Roumaine, Henri Matisse, 1940. The inspiration for the painting seems to have been Elvira Popescu, Elena Văcărescu, Anna de Noailles and Marthe Bibesco.