In 1934 Nelson Rockefeller commissioned the architect Wallace K. Harrison to redesign an apartment on Fifth Avenue for his growing family. By 1938 Rockefeller had acquired space on two additional floors of the building, where Harrison created a living room nearly forty-seven feet long, paneled in walnut with Rococo-inspired cutouts for doorframes and window frames. Rockefeller commissioned painted surrounds—one by Matisse, the other by Léger—for the fireplaces at either end. The furnishings were supplied by the French decorator Jean-Michel Frank, who collaborated with the sculptor Alberto Giacometti and the illustrator Christian Bérard.
Matisse’s final overmantel painting portrayed four female figures interacting in pairs; this study for its top section depicts two women listening to a song. The drawing was executed during the early stages of preparation of the decorative scheme, before Matisse began working on the canvas (which he completed in Paris and sent to New York for installation). The composition emanates the atmosphere of a civilized, sheltered interior, with the protagonists engaged in a dreamlike pastime. The figures are defined through the use of an arabesque line, gracefully curving against the more geometric lattice background of armchairs and strongly emphasized rhododendron leaves.