Transcendence and the Two Nadias: Inspired by Henri Matisse’s “Nadia”

Acrylic on printer ink on paper

Side by side of day 168, Matisse’s “Nadia”, young Nadia Sednaoui, and old Nadia Sednaoui

Art gathers memories and touches our lives, and even defies time. When I was 12 I visited the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) with my family, it was one of many visits, and it was there that we saw an exhibit full of Matisse’s drawings. Inside the gallery, I remember my surprise at the low lights that funneled my attention to the pieces.

The light only caught some of my attention: we had been in the museum for a while, my feet had grown tired, I had decided I was ready to go. Thankfully the exhibit was small, so I glanced around trying to appreciate the art while being distracted by my sore feet. In childhood we listen to our sore feet, in childhood we might even discount something fantastic just to give those trusty appendages a rest. Yet if my feet weren’t sore, I might not have seen the drawing of Nadia.

The doppelgänger name made me stop, the poise and simplicity made me look. I looked and looked, and experienced some sort of pride that my name could be linked to a piece of art that was removed from myself yet I felt connected to somehow. 

And today, as a result of some roundabout moments of doubt, I found Matisse’s drawings of Nadia once again. Today’s piece was inspired by Matisse’s drawing titled Nadia, the same subject as that of the drawing I saw in the DIA all those years ago. Reflecting on the years that have passed since I first saw a drawing of Nadia and on what I’ve learned about Nadia herself, one word connects the art, experience, and connections: transcendence.

After a bit of research, I was only able to trace Nadia Sednaoui, later known as Nadia Kosiakov, as far back as an interview. Filmed just before her death in 2015, the Nadia captured a liveliness and light in Nadia’s eyes, a light that she reflected on as she remembered her experiences. As she looked in the distance, and through the distance to her past, Nadia spoke of a transcendence attained through her friendship with Matisse, 

“The more I advance in age, the more I realize it is the transcendence that is the essence of life.” 

Perhaps through moments in time, through small connections like a name, through a captured light, art can embody transcendence. Art gives us a taste of the interconnectedness of the world, of our lives. And we must be open to, and look at, the art before us: art that isn’t on walls but in each other, in the stories that reside within each other’s eyes.


Watch Nadia Sednaoui’s interview and treat yourself to a half an hour of connection and art history. (Put the subtitles on if, like me, you are not fluent in French.)