Portuguese Letters - Lettres Portugaises

Artist’s Name
Author’s Name
Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
Mariana Alcaforado
1946, Paris
Printed in one volume, size 26,5 x 22 εκ.
68 original lithographs, of which 20 are off the text
Printed on ‘vélin d’ Arches’ paper:
  • 250 copies, numbered 1-250
  • 20 copies, off the market, numbered I-XX
The letters of the Portuguese nun are what make up the first book of the French artist, Henri Matisse, which was published by Tériade. The artist himself had the idea; he was impressed by a series of five love letters, written by a Portuguese nun to her unfaithful lover. These texts had been initially published with great success in 1669. Since then, they were reprinted many times, even in some fake versions. The letters of Marianna, who was in love and wounded by love, touched Matisse. He felt he needed to create a book that would contain these letters, decorated with the relevant symbols, and a series of images that would express her personal drama.

Each of these five letters is decorated with a different motif, which is repeated in order to give emphasis to what the drawing symbolizes. At the same time, these symbols add a particular character to each text. The motifs that the artist has chosen are: a pinecone, a pomegranate, a peach, a hyacinth and a blossomed pomegranate tree. These suggest the different characteristics of love as well as making nature and the material world evident, which are dominant in the letters. These decorations along with the initial letters of the paragraphs visually transfer the sensuality of the text. They also renew the tradition of illustrated manuscripts.

Matisse regarded portraiture as one of the most expressive and powerful means. It enabled him to reproduce the characteristics of the nun’s personality as well as to convey her thoughts and feelings. The artist frees his imagination and draws a series of twenty-five portraits of the nun, based on his instinct and intuition. In his effort to place emphasis on the personal character of these letters and on the drama of the nun, Matisse concentrates on the major characteristics of her face. He avoids visually transferring any other elements, with the exception of some manuscript labels taken from the original letters. The series of these portraits shows the viewer: how the passionate love of desperate Marianna developed, the variations of her psychological state and the contradictions of her feelings. Through her texts, the memory of a scorned femininity emerges as well as the unrequited love and the turmoil that the particular man brought to her life.