For so many reasons, Henri Matisse cemented himself as one of the most prominent and influential artists of the 20th century. Along with Andre Derain, he is credited with creating the Fauve movement of the mid 1910’s, a group of painters who explored the use of stark colors and thick, heavy brushstrokes over normalized backgrounds and settings. His artistic resume stretched across a half a century, culminating in a body of work consisting of “a thousand pictures, 300 sculptures, more than two thousand drawings, gouaches, and engravings.”1 While criticism was mostly positive toward Matisse’s work throughout his career, especially in the years following Fauvism (the time his artwork truly began to shine critically and commercially), some pieces were especially looked down on by critics and spectators alike. Most notable of these “flops” of the time are two pieces Matisse arguably put the most effort into creating: Dance II (1909-10, oil on canvas) and Music (1910, also oil on canvas), two gigantic decorative pieces made on commission for the Russian art collector Sergei Shchukin. These two pieces show Matisse’s major departure from his old Fauvist tendencies, depicting the human figure in a much more primitive way compared to his older seminal works such as Woman with a Hat (1905, oil on canvas) or Luxe, Calme et Volupte (1904, oil on canvas). His use of color is also much more upfront, forcing the spectator to recognize the major elements in the paintings which are contrasting: the background, the sky behind this and the human subjects in front. Critics have also seen his use of color in these works to be symbolic, one of the first times Matisse adopted symbolism through color in painting. These sudden, major differences in style could be what turned initial audiences off from Dance II and Music during their debut at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, 1910.
To properly contrast the differences in style between the “Fauvist” Matisse and the “post-1910” Matisse, one must understand what kind of style Matisse was making such a drastic departure from. Matisse started painting around twenty years of age, while he was bedridden with appendicitis and was given “a box of paints as a way to pass time.”2 He was initially in school to study and practice law, but after his sickness decided to pursue painting, later evolving this passion into the exploration of other art forms such as sculpting and drawing. Matisse studied under great painters such as Carriere and Moreau in different schools across France, eventually breaking away from schools of art altogether to pursue and develop his own art style, which already at such a young age (around his twenties) started to emphasize the use of color. Apparently while studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in France, under the guidance of Gustave Moreau, Moreau exclaimed “‘You will simplify painting!’, intuiting that Matisse would revolutionize the use of color.”3
Over the time leading toward Matisse’s two most controversial works, his painting style changed frequently due to Matisse still learning and trying to develop his own personal style. In 1905 he produced Luxe, Calme et Volupte (meaning “luxury, peace and pleasure”), a painting with obvious differences from his previous still-lifes. This painting was greatly influenced by the work of Paul Signac, who along with Georges Seurat pioneered the idea of Divisionism (also known as Pointillism) – a painting style which used many small brushstrokes to create thousands of small dots, dots which when looked at altogether constituted an entire painting. Luxe was notable in Matisse’s body of work for doing this, along with its unique use of numerous differing colors to create the appearance of a bay at sunset. Robert Hughes also notes that in this painting “Matisse’s literary interest in Baudelaire merged with his Arcadian fantasies.” He continues in saying that due to the contrasting colors it is “not, to put it mildly, a very stirring piece of luxe, but it was Matisse’s first attempt to make an image of the Mediterranean as a state of mind.”4 This idea of the “Mediterranean state of mind” is expanded in his other works featuring sailboats, rosey-hued sunsets and small buildings reminiscent of towns in southern France, works such as The Roofs of Collioure (1905) and The Open Window (1905), both of work also take influence from Divisionism (although not entirely, as dots only constitute a small part of each painting). Eventually Divisionism is short-lived by Matisse however, as apparent in these two 1905 works which are mostly made of full brush strokes.
Another theme explored by Matisse in Luxe was the idea of Arcadia, an ancient idea based on man and nature living together as one. This is reflected in Luxe’s relaxed, bathing nudes who all look to be at peace and living in paradise, a theme which Matisse uses in many of his later works. The Arcadian figures in Luxe seem to be a reference to older paintings from the Renaissance era, some of which depicted humanity as careless as could be, either bathing, dancing or lying with each other (but not necessarily with a sexual meaning). Arcadia is a theme in another of Matisse’s major works, The Joy of Life (1906), a painting which explores even more exotic use of color and places more emphasis on lines than any of his previous works, officially departing from the Divisionist style. The figures in this painting are classic Arcadian – all nude, playing music, gently embracing one another, “the theme of humankind [is] happily inserted into nature”5 and most importantly of all as seen in the background, people are dancing in a ring (an allusion to one of the later paintings in subject, Dance). Colors are used in background subjects (trees, fields, leaves) in a similar way to his previous Fauvist works. The most notable addition to his style in this painting is the use of shadows, creating the shadows underneath the two central characters with a deep, powerful red. These shadows also contour to the shapes of their bodies, another first for Matisse. Powerful dark lines emphasize tree trunks and branches in the background, matching the outlines made above the central characters of the painting. One last important motif which stems from this painting is Matisse’s erasing of faces, as several characters in the painting are completely expressionless. The idea of eliminating the faces of the people in the painting “emphasizes the decorative element and the use of color, to the detriment of the identity of the sitter,”6 meaning Matisse did not want the viewer to analyze the emotions of the characters in his work, rather he wanted the viewer to comment on his use of color and all of the painting’s decorative aspects. Many of the themes included in The Joy of Life, including the idea of the Arcadian lifestyle, exploring the use of solid lines, emphasis on color comparisons and the subtraction of faces off of certain subjects in the paintings, are all themes which he would continue to employ in later bodies of work.
These paintings not only allowed for Matisse to experiment with “finding his artistic voice,” but also brought him moderate commercial and critical success. A few years after The Joy of Life, Matisse was approached by the Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin, who requested two large decorative canvases of the same size to be hung up in the staircase of his gallery and home, Trubetskoy Palace, in Moscow. Shchukin was already an avid collector of Matisse’s work, “who at regular intervals would descend on Paris and clean [Matisse’s] studio out.”7 Shchukin more than likely requested canvases similar in style and method to those he already purchased from Matisse, but Matisse set out to complete something different, and with this goal in mind he created Dance II and Music. Physically large (Dance II was 260 x 391 cm, Music was 260 x 389 cm), these two works were anything but ordinary, as they greatly deviated from every previous art style Matisse had established or experimented with separating himself from many of his own motifs and themes.
Dance II was based on a previous work simply titled Dance, which was made almost as a draft by Matisse for his commissioned work. Through studying the figures he created in Dance, the balance between the colors present in the painting and the dynamics of the ring dance itself shown, he was able to create Dance II for Shchukin, which in essence augmented all of these features to create a work of art the likes of which had not been seen in 1910. The dance itself shown is based on the ring dance from the background of his previous The Joy of Life, with the similarities between these two paintings ending there. The only real similarity between Dance II and Joy is that both of the dance circles have been described by critics as “Dionysian,” relating back to the idea of Arcadia and harmony.
Dance II, along with its counterpart Music, places emphasis on color, more so than any of Matisse’s previous works by stretching out each of the colors, contrasting three colors which visibly clash on the canvas. Critic Laurie Edson says that Matisse “has juxtaposed three saturated colors that in 1910 had not yet ordinarily appeared together. The exaggerated earth and sky colors are not mere backgrounds but active protagonists, primary blocks in Matisse’s visual language that stimulate the mind and the senses…” She continues: “Matisse frees colors from the way they had been used before him by the divisionists and fauves… Matisse allows the colors to draw attention to themselves by applying them boldly over the huge canvas.”8
Compare his usage of color in these two works to how color is applied to The Joy of Life; while Joy takes contrasting colors and applies them to nearly every detail of the painting, whether it be the shadows cast by the figures of the painting or the yellow grass compared to the red and green trees, Dance II and Music overwhelm the viewer by only using three colors which completely clash (the brown hair of the dancers is not as important as the blue of the sky, the green of the land and the orange of the dancers themselves as they tend to blend in with the bodies
One of the largest differences between Matisse’s two commissioned works and his earlier body of work can be seen within the figures of the paintings themselves – the dancers and the musicians. The difference in Matisse’s way of rendering the figures of the paintings is what made spectators initially dismiss these two paintings as nothing more than “primitive,” as his depiction of the human figure and especially in the case of Music their faces were drastically different from his earlier works. The bodies of the characters in Joy are fully developed, shaded in when appropriate and look to be of differing color tones as actual physical human bodies would be (the human body is not all one color of course). The bodies in Dance II however are all one solid color, not necessarily with the intention of accurately depicting humans but rather so show an interpretation of a human. The most notable difference between the bodies of characters in Joy and Dance is that the bodies in Joy are unintrusive bodies of color, with the shadows and outlines of their figures being outside their bodies (like the dark red shadow beneath and the forest green line above the central figure). The physical bodies in Dance feature lines which help define them, lines which penetrate the bodies of color they would ordinarily be composed of. These lines mark a huge difference in how Matisse depicts people as they help show how contorted and extended the dancers are so that they may complete the dance.
For the faces of the figures in The Joy of Life, of the ones which actually had faces portrayed, their emotions were anywhere from neutral to pleasant, giving the viewer the sense that these Arcadian figures were enjoying another day in paradise. The faces in Music clearly take great influence from those depicted in African art, a style much researched by Matisse as he always had an interest in primitive forms of art (originally seen in many of his sculptures and his painting Blue Nude ). The faces appear to be hastily assembled, crudely sketched onto the heads of the musicians. Couple this apparent haphazard style with the sense that the faces seem to be completely emotionless makes it seem like Matisse was not trying to put any depth into his figures, instead simply trying to make a painting with figures that have faces resembling actual human faces. They look like mere charactertures of people, a distinct style of primitive art which simply tried to portray the human figure and expression. Primitive art at the time was only just beginning to break into the mainstream West, due to greater attention to diverse cultures given by the World’s Fair (also due to their increased attendance). Perhaps people simply were not ready for Matisse to make a transition to the primitive so quickly, leading to the condemnation of Dance II and Music.
All these drastic differences in color usage, style and the departure from just about everything Matisse was known for between his commissioned works and his older body of work could be the reason why Dance II and Music were so universally looked-down on when they were debuted at the Salon d’Automne in 1910. Upon being viewed for the first time, critics and spectators alike saw Dance II and Music and shunned it. Matisse normally could take negative criticism well, but according to art historian Yve-Alain Bois it “hit him hard. Not only did it catch Matisse at a moment when he was particularly fragile (his father had died a day after his return to Paris), it also had an immediate effect on his most courageous and faithful patron… Sergei Shchukin, who had commissioned the two large paintings and had been enthusiastically following their progress from afar.”9 Upon hearing the negative criticism, Shchukin was instantly turned-off from the paintings and canceled their commission, striking a devastating blow to Matisse. Thankfully on his way back to Russia Shchukin changed his mind and decided to purchase the paintings after all, immediately sending a letter back to Matisse:
“I’ve thought things over and I’m ashamed of my weakness and lack of courage. One should never flee the battlefield without putting up a fight. For that reason I have decided to hang your panels. People may shout and laugh, but since I’m convinced that your path is the right one, perhaps time will be my ally and I shall claim victory in the end.”10
Without this lucky turnaround from Shchukin Matisse could have very well never recovered from all the negativity pointed at his work. Thankfully the two pieces were immediately flown back to Shchukin in Russia, he canceled the order for another painting made to replace Dance II and Music at the Salon and Shchukin mailed one last letter to Matisse on the matter saying “I hope to come to like them one day.”11
While they may have been immediately panned during their debut, Dance II and Music received much critical attention and analysis in the years to come. Scholars agree that it was a defining moment in Matisse’s career, signaling a drastic change in style that he took with him into the end of his career. Hughes argues that “the Dance is one of the few wholly convincing images of physical ecstasy made in the twentieth century.”12 Like the work of many other artists such as Gauguin or Van Gogh, Dance II and Music became much appreciated after-the-fact, showing that proper art analyzation and admiration cannot be made during the debut of the art in question, rather it takes much time and study to fully appreciate all of the hard labor the artist has put into his work.
1. Zeri, p. 40
2. Zeri, p. 14
3. Zeri, p. 14
4. Hughes, Artchive
5. Zeri, p. 30
6. Zeri, p. 30
7. Hughes, Artchive
8. Edson, p. 117
9. Bois, p. 100
11. Bois, p. 100
12. Hughes, Artchive
Bois, Yve-Alain; Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, and Benhamin H.D. Buchloh. Art since 1900,
volume 1. New York City: Thames & Hudson Inc., 2004.
Edson, Laurie. Reading Relationally: Postmodern Perspectives on Literature and Art. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.
Flam, Jack. Matisse – The Dance. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1993.
“Henri Matisse. The Music. The Dance..” Moodbook. Available from
accessed 26 April 2010.
Hughes, Robert. “Henri Matisse.” Artchive. Available from
http://www.artchive.com/artchive/M/matisse.html. Internet; accessed 26 April 2010.
Zeri, Federico. Matisse: La Danse. Ontario, CA: NDE Publishing, 2000.