Greta Moll is Matisse's first commissioned portrait. It was painted in the spring and early summer of 1908 in Matisse's studio in Paris, which was then situated - along with his family home and the Académie Matisse - in the garden of the old Convent of the Sacré Cœur on the Boulevard des Invalides. Its subject is depicted as an imposing figure seated in front of a length of toile de Jouy (traditional French upholstery and furnishing fabric teeming with heavy floral or rustic patterns), that Matisse used as a background for several of his paintings, still lifes in particular.
Margarete (known as Greta) Moll (1884-1977) and her husband Oskar (1875-1947) were among the ten original students of the Matisse Academy, founded in January 1908, and early collectors of Matisse's work. After seeing a black-and-white photograph of a recent portrait of Greta by the German artist Lovis Corinth (1858-1925; Greta Moll, 1907, oil on canvas, 1200 x 1000 mm, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt), Matisse criticised its failure to evoke the twenty-three year-old Greta's 'youthfulness' and, his competitiveness aroused, he offered to paint her portrait himself (Klein, p.153).
After Greta Moll had sat ten times for her portrait, Matisse was still dissatisfied with it. By the time she returned to his studio for the eleventh sitting, the artist had completed the painting, radically altering it after seeing Paolo Veronese's Woman and Child with Dog (1565-70, oil on canvas, 1150 x 950 mm) at the Musée du Louvre. Although the painting had already been reworked extensively (for instance, Greta's green-and-white patterned blouse was originally lavender white and her black skirt either yellow or green), Matisse was disappointed with it for failing to capture what he saw as Greta's 'statuesque quality'. He therefore adopted the pose and ample proportions of the arms of Veronese's model, adapting the rest of his painting accordingly, and declared himself satisfied with the result. The Molls, however, were not. Matisse recalled in the 1940s, 'I saw them completely dumbfounded in front of the result of my work, which seemed to them a disaster. They missed the blond curls and the varied colors of the portrait … This portrait was later very much admired, even by them, and I said to myself once more that Bonnard was right to declare that a portrait always ends up being a likeness.' (Quoted in Klein, p.157.) Greta Moll later explained that when she first saw the finished portrait she was very upset by its large arms and bushy eyebrows. (See Henri matisse 1904-1917, p.448.)
In order for a commissioned portrait to satisfy both the artist's vision and the image of him- or herself that the client/sitter wants to present to the world, the two parties generally work together towards a mutually agreeable result. In this case, although Matisse discussed the portrait with Greta Moll at length, eventually his own ideas prevailed over any other consideration. Matisse had been aware of this possibility from the beginning of the transaction: when the Molls first commissioned him, he made it a condition of their agreement that he would keep the painting if they did not like it. Matisse's thoughts on this matter were set out in his essay 'Notes of a Painter', which he wrote soon after painting Greta Moll's portrait. 'Suppose I want to paint a woman's body', he wrote, 'first of all I imbue it with grace and charm, but I know that I must give something more. I will condense the meaning of this body by seeking its essential lines. The charm will be less apparent at first glance, but it must eventually emerge from the new image which will have a broader meaning, one more fully human.' (Quoted in Flam, p.36.) It is remarkable that, with Greta Moll, the artist invoked the help of a Renaissance master in order to make a resolutely modernist statement.
Greta Moll must have been the perfect embodiment of Matisse's artistic theories in 1908, as he chose it as one of six pictures to illustrate 'Notes of a Painter' and exhibited it in the Salon d'Automne in Paris the same year. In spite of its lukewarm early reception by the Molls, who started to appreciate it soon afterwards, the portrait was very much admired, and Greta Moll later quoted the art critic André Salmon as saying, 'I could kill the man who owns it just to have it myself.' (Quoted in Henri matisse 1904-1917, p.449.)
Henri Matisse, 'Notes of a Painter', in Jack D. Flam, Matisse on Art, London 1973, pp.35-40
Henri Matisse 1904-1917, exhibition catalogue, Musée National de l'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1993, reproduced p.241 in colour and p.448
John Klein, Matisse Portraits, New Haven and London 2001, reproduced p.155 in colour