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In 1946, a frequent visitor to Henri Matisse’s villa in Nice was Elvire Josephine Van Hyfte. The elegant young woman was born in the Belgian Congo in 1920, but after the death of her mother, who was Congolese, she moved to Europe with her Belgian father, settling in Brussels and attending university in Louvain. She came to Nice in search of the warm climate and probably met Matisse through mutual literary friends. The painter and the young woman had an easy rapport; through the summer and fall of 1946, she was his model on several occasions. Via letters and visits, their friendship continued for years.

Although experts knew that Elvire Van Hyfte had been Matisse’s model, her history had been largely forgotten or ignored until the groundbreaking research of Dr. Denise Murrell, published in the catalogues of two exhibitions held in New York and Paris in 2018–19—Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today and Le Modèle noir: De Géricault à Matisse. Dr. Murrell traced Van Hyfte’s biography with the help of her surviving relatives. She died in France in 2004, having spent the last half of her life in East Africa­—where she had returned following the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The most ambitious of all the paintings of Elvire Van Hyfte is L’Asie, which has been in the Kimbell’s collection since 1992. Van Hyfte’s image was never envisioned as a likeness, but the line of her brows and nose, her rouged lips, and her dark hair signal her beauty. A minute of time from one of her posing sessions was captured by the filmmaker François Campaux: she sits for the artist in a low lounge chair, wearing a long white gown. In L’Asie, she wears a striped dress, slips one arm into a fur-trimmed long coat, and playfully displays a string of beads with the upturned palm of her right hand. (She is shown wearing the coat in another part of the film, much of which can be seen below.)

To his painting of Madame Van Hyfte, a woman born in Africa, Matisse curiously gave the title L’Asie, or Asia. As Murrell says, “That Van Hyfte is a personification of Asia, despite the presence of a Chinese model with whom Matisse was also working around this time, underscores Matisse’s disregard for conventions that limit models to any one ethnic type.” Indeed, in the making of art, Matisse discounted the details of Elvire Van Hyfte’s story, though revealing her beauty and intelligence. In her, he found the ideal model for what became his last series of oil paintings.