The Matisses hired Lydia Delectorskaya as a studio assistant in 1932. She was young (22) and Russian. Within a few years she began to model for Matisse. “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.” She posed for “The Pink Nude” in 1935, a painting which Pierre Matisse told his father, renewed himself as a painter.
It was the working alliance between Matisse and Lydia, rather than any question of adultery, that precipitated a crisis in Matisse’s marriage. Faced with an ultimatum from Amélie (“It’s me or her”), Matisse chose his wife and sacked Lydia, but it was too late. Amélie, still furious over what she viewed as his betrayal, left her husband early in 1939. Matisse and his wife met the last time to discuss details of their legal separation, in July 1939. One of its key provisions was that everything would be divided equally between the couple.
The meeting took place in Paris at the Gare St. Lazare and lasted thirty minutes, during which Amélie Matisse kept up a flow of small talk while her husband.”My wife never looked at me, but I didn’t take my eyes off her…,” Matisse wrote on the night of that final encounter: “I couldn’t get a word out…. I remained as if carved out of wood, swearing never to be caught that way again.”
After her dismissal, Delectorskaya shot herself in the chest with a pistol, remarkably with only a slight effect. Soon after the artist and his wife were legally separated Delectorskaya was back. She arrived with a bouquet of white daisies and blue cornflowers from her Aunt’s garden on July 15th, St Henry’s Day. War had been declared with Germany and Lydia was trapped with Matisse in a stream of people fleeing invasion after the declaration. “A decision had to be made there,” she said, “as to whether or not he was to take me with him.” Matisse drew Lydia in her traveling hood at the start of the long journey they were about to make together through war-torn France. She remained at his side for the rest of his life. Their working collaboration was to last right up to Matisse’s death in 1954. In the face of the family’s icy resentment, the Russian said of Matisse, “He knew how to take possession of people and make them feel they were indispensable. That was how it was for me, and that was how it had been for Mme. Matisse.” Matisse died in 1954 at age 84. The day before his death he sketched Lydia with her hair wrapped in a towel. He used a ball point pen, holding the last drawing he ever made out at arm’s length to assess its quality before pronouncing gravely, “It will do.”