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Matisse, Dance I

Henri Matisse, Dance I, 1909, oil on canvas, 259.7 x 390 cm (Museum of Modern Art, New York City)
In 1909 Matisse received an important commission. An extremely wealthy Russian industrialist named Sergei Shchukin asked Matisse for three large scale canvases to decorate the spiral staircase of his mansion, the Trubetskoy Palace, in Moscow. The large and well loved painting, Dance I at MoMA, is somewhat disingenously titled. Although it is full scale and in oil, Matisse did not consider it more than a preparatory sketch. Yet a comparison between the initial and final versions is instructive. Matisse borrowed the motif from the back of the 1905-06 painting Bonheur de Vivre, although he has removed one dancer.
Henri Matisse, Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life), 1905-06, oil on canvas, 176.5 x 240.7 cm (The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia)
Henri Matisse, detail Dance I, 1909, oil on canvas, 259.7 x 390 cm (Museum of Modern Art, New York City)
In Dance I, the figures express the light pleasure and joy that was so much a part of the earlier Fauve masterpiece. The figures are drawn loosely, with almost no interior definition. They have been likened to bean bag dolls because of their formless and unrestricted movements. The bodies certainly don’t seem to be restrained by way. But don’t let this childlike spontaneity fool you. Matisse works very hard to make his paintings seem effortless. Imagine for a moment, that instead of this childlike style, Matisse had decided to render this figures with the frozen density of Jacques Louis David. Would the sense of pure joy, the sense of play have been as well expressed? Matisse has done something that is actually very difficult. He has unlearned the lessons of representation so that he can create an image where form matches content.
The dancers inhabit a brilliant blue and green field. But what exactly does the green represent? Many people would quickly reply, “a grassy hilltop.” Okay, but what then is the blue intended to represent? If I were lecturing at MoMA, as I often do, many listeners would offer that “the blue is the sky that rises above the hill.” But others in my group might begin to look frustrated. One might then say, “that’s not what I see, the blue is really water moving back into the distance.”
Henri Matisse, detail Dance I, 1909, oil on canvas, 259.7 x 390 cm (Museum of Modern Art, New York City)
What Matisse has done here, even in seemingly simple rendering, is use spatial ambiguity to explore one of the key issues in modern painting, the conflict between the illusion of depth and an acknowledgment of the flatness of the canvas. One final point here, did you notice the break in the circle? The hands of the two front dancers are parted. Matisse has been careful to allow this break only where it overlaps the knee so as not to interrupt the continuity of the color. Why do this? The part is often interpreted in two ways, as a source of tension that requires resolution or, as an invitation to us the viewer to join in, after all, the break is at the point closest to our position.
Henri Matisse, Dance, 1910, oil on canvas, 260 x 291 cm (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg)
The final version of Dance has a very different emotional character. It has been described as forbidding, menacing, tribal, ritualistic, even demonic. Drum beats almost seem to be heard as the simple pleasure of the original is overwhelmed. What causes these dramatic changes in mood? Beyond the color shift, which is pretty obvious, the figures of the 1910 canvas are drawn with more interior line, line which often suggests tension and physical power. See for instance, the back left figure. Another more subtle change occurs where the two back figures touch the ground. In the 1909 canvas, the green reaches up to the feet of the two back most dancers, in the 1910 canvas, something else happens, the green seems to compress under the dancer’s weight. This subtle change creates either a sense of lightness or a sense of weight and contributes to the way we perceive each painting. So be careful before concluding that Matisse was actually drawing like a child, he knew exactly what he was doing.
Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Daniel Oropeza
    Isn't it deliverately misleading to say Matisse knew "exactly what he was doing" because he was capable of adding a bit of interior lining and weight to the painted characters? Any first-year art student that takes drawing seriously should be able to do that, and yet that doesn't make him a master painter.
    (9 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Jose Maria Rodriguez Alcantara
      Well, first of all, no, your first year student could probably not come up with this idea of a painting by him/herself. Sure, they could copy it, but not create it.
      And also, it's not misleading because it is simply the truth. Matisse was not trying to paint "like a kid", rather, he was trying to express the idea of joy and dance in a way that hadn't been done before, and which didn't involve representing the figures as realistically as possible. He wanted to show you movement, he wanted you to see dance in a flat surface. And this is as hard as you could imagine.
      (6 votes)
  • mr pink red style avatar for user Jimmy Canali
    Dance, 1910- I don't see this piece as demonic or ritualistic when I try and get inside of the painters point of view I feel this painting is really about friendship, community, & love. Are there any more references that suggest meanings behind this piece?
    (7 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Aviyah Marie
    why does everyone have a problem with the dancers being naked? i think its beautiful.
    (7 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user 2020micaela
    Please explain the break of the circle? Was it just not to overlap the same colours?
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Rachel Coleman
    When the paintings were released, were they accepted by society even though the people were nude? Would today's society have been more or less accepting?
    (0 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user keeneredge
      Classicism was dying by this point. While the Academy still controlled French "official" art and celebrated crisp, classical technique, the Salon des Refusés exhibited avant garde art, and this is often the style we study in art history today. While it is true that nudes were considered acceptable, there was a huge distinction at this time between "nude" and "naked". Art critics nicknamed Matisse's movement "Fauves" or "wild beasts" because they were so offended by their utter disregard of traditional art principles. Essentially, if an artist painted a nude woman in soft, beautiful, warm tones with classically fine brushstrokes, the piece was applauded (reference an earlier work by Titian, "The Pastoral Symphony"--it's not from this period, but essentially what was desired of nude art). If the artist painted a nude in harsh lines, flat color, and cool tones or in another way disobeyed the principles of classical art, critics were horrified (see Manet, "Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe" and "Olympia").
      (8 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user Piao Rou
    The gap of the circle? Seriously nobody has played in a circle before? People are running smiling and rotating. Some are fast while some are slow, and somebody fell on the ground. That's what looks like to me in this painting. The nearest figure obviously was falling onto the ground. So the friend next to her lost the grasp of hands. That's the gap. It makes us feel the motion of the circle.
    And I think the most left figure has a really weird gesture for rising his left hand high. You wouldn't grasp the people to your left in this gesture. And the most right figure is obvious viewed from above. So there is a shifting perspective. This feature apears to me like something in Cezanne. It seems Matisse was arranging the figures viewed from different perspective. Viewed individually they are holding hands next to eachother. Viewed collectively, the space and gesture doesn't make sense. It's different gestures in different space reaching out hands to form a circle. Not what's happening in a really circle dance.
    However this is modern art, I see some decorative function in its colors and shapes but I shall never consider it as beautiful as the works of masters before. I can hardly understand why this childly painted picture can get a buyer and why so many people want to talk about such a simple painting like what we are doing here.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Krystal M Taylor
    What is the purpose of the people being naked in the paintings? I believe that more people would like these paintings if they were clothed.
    (0 votes)
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    • sneak peak yellow style avatar for user LateSparrow
      Embrace the nakedness! It has always been heavily present in art history, excepting maybe the middle ages. It is completely natural, and besides, it is important that these figures are nudes, because that is the only thing that connects Matisse's picture to the beautifully rendered works of the masters who came before him. The whole idea is that it's just paint on canvas. It's flat. It shouldn't look real. It should speak to you.
      We live in a world where artists around us work in countless different styles, and it's hard to appreciate this, but imagine if you only saw beautifully rendered paintings your whole life, and then something this strikes your face. You either revolt, because this is not painting, it is barbaric, no skill, so vulgar. You can also stop and realize that painting is so flexible, can express so many things in so many different ways and nobody ever tried to explore it's full potential. And artists are experimenting ever since, until we all got fed up with it. If it was painted now, nobody would notice it. Back then it was the most striking thing that anybody has ever done.
      (4 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Marie Polk
    Why are the people naked? I feel that if they were wearing clothes it would appeal to people more. Also, why is the last painting more detailed? Their limbs and bodies all seem more realistic.
    (0 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Kamryn Blume
    Do you think they are nude because that was in "envouge" during that time period? As the times went on people started painting other things like the Mona Lisa who is fully dressed. In the recent history most art does not depict women in nude at all.
    (0 votes)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user Alyssa Renee
    I don't understand why the people are naked either. I mean I feel the paintings would be more beautiful and elegant if the people weren't naked.
    (0 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user keeneredge
      Matisse's purpose was not to create "elegant" art. The idea of elegance at this point in art was reserved mostly for painters of the upper class or the earlier Impressionists. Post-Impressionism and Expressionism (Fauvism is a form of this) are reactions against the frivolous elegance and fleeting quality of the Impressionists. Matisse and the Fauves valued emotion and the explored the ability of solid color to create feeling in a viewer and capture essential qualities of life beyond the "prettiness" of the Impressionist movement.
      (4 votes)