Sculpture

"I sculpted as a painter, I did not sculpt like a sculptor. Sculpture does not say what painting says."

Known primarily for his paintings, drawings, and works on paper, Matisse was also an accomplished sculptor whose radical style left  lasting mark on modern art history. Although he pursued sculpture since his early years as an independent form of expression, he frequently used it to find a solution to pictorial problems.

The announcement of an
exhibition of sculpture by
Matisse at the Tate gallery, 1953.

If Matisse's paintings, for all their chromatic strength, tend to be elegantly composed, the sculptures are often about stresses and struggles. The three-dimensional medium permitted Matisse to twist the figure even more than he had in the painting. He is said to have urged his students to literally adopt the posture of the twisting and contorted bodies of the models as they worked in order to capture their full physical and psychic value.

Matisse downplayed his skills as a sculptor, and his total output is dwarfed by his oeuvre of paintings and drawings. If sculpture was a sideline, he tended to return to certain sculptural concepts and worked on some pieces for years at a time.

Matisse bought a small work by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) when he began studying sculpture and, although he denied feeling any direct influence, he plainly shared Rodin's understanding that when the traditional values of sculpture. Matisse began collecting African carvings in 1906. As he explained, he was interested in how "they were conceived from the point of view of sculptural language…made in terms of their material according to invented planes and proportions." In other words, African art used techniques of simplification to create sculptures that were emotionally powerful without necessarily being anatomically accurate.

Large Seated Nude
bronze, lost-wax cast
1922-29

Matisse's interest in non-European cultures is evident. The figure has undergone a dramatic simplification, moving away from naturalism towards a more elemental and physical sense of the human body, much as Matisse had observed in African sculpture. These later Backs may also have been modified to reflect the different body shape of African women. Certainly, In 1908 Matisse had made a sculpture based on a photograph of Tuareg women in which he emphasized their compact, stocky proportions.

Matisse recognized that relief sculpture was an ideal stepping stone between fleshy three-dimensionality and the necessarily flat representation of the body in painting. In relief sculpture, he could deal with the mass and form of the body in real space, and at the same time clarify his sense of how to represent the human form on canvas. We might say that the woman represented in this relief stands between the realms of sculpture and painting, or between three-dimensional reality and the flatness of painted representation.

Jaguar Devouring a Hare

More than half of Matisse's sculptures were completed between 1900 and 1910. He frequently worked in series, manipulating the form and simplifying it over the years. Among his best-known works belong the series of four Back reliefs (1903–31), the series of five Jeannetteheads (1910–16), and the Large Seated Nude (1925–29). In all, Matisse created 82 sculptural works, each cast in editions of 10 with one exception. Only three casts of Small Thin Torso (1929) exist and The Baltimore Museum of Art acquired one of them in July 2007. Etta Cone, an important American art collector, originally purchased 24 sculptures by Matisse, with two casts of six of those works. The second casts were given to the Weatherspoon Art Museum in North Carolina, where many of the Cone family members lived. 

In 1899, at a time when his paintings were showing rebellious talent but not much clear direction, Henri Matisse began attending classes in clay modeling and sculpture. Assigned to copy one of the sculptural masterpieces in the Louvre, he selected Jaguar Devouring a Hare, a violently precise work by Antoine-Louis Barye. Jaguar is a deeply conservative work but a comparison with the original underscores Matisse’s instinctive rejection of the academic tradition embodied by Barye.

The Serf
1900-08

Matisse worked obsessively for years on three of works —Jaguar Devouring a Hare (1899-1901), The Serf (1900-03), and Large Seated Nude (1922-29)—far longer than for any single canvas. For The Serf, he used the Italian model Bevilaqua, who had modeled for Rodin’s John the Baptist (1878) and Walking Man (c. 1900). Matisse used two types of casting methods—sand casting, a 19th-century technique, and lost wax, a technique that has existed since ancient times and was revived in the 20th century. Most editions of Matisse’s work were cast during his later years when there were more collectors who could pay for them. Matisse never saw The Backs (I-IV), his largest and among his most significant sculptures, cast in bronze. They were cast by his heirs after his death. The original plaster casts and molds for most of Matisse’s sculptures were destroyed by his heirs in the 1990s to prevent the production of further editions.

In 1907, Matisse painted the Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra) in frustration after the wet clay sculpture Reclining Nude I (Aurora) fell off its stand and was deformed. 

Matisse and sculpture

Matisse in c. 1902 standing in front of his sculpture The Serf before he decided to eliminate its arms.

Three Batehrs, Paul Cezanne

"Cézanne was right and so am I" Matisse bought Cézanne's Three Bathers for the sum of 1,300 francs from the art dealer Ambroise Vollard. He used it as a starting point for a series of sculptures and drawings of monumental nudes seen from the back. He later donated the Cézanne to the City Museum of Paris in 1936.

Matisse recognized that relief sculpture was an ideal stepping stone between fleshy three-dimensionality and the necessarily flat representation of the body in painting. “I sculpted as a painter,” said Matisse, “I did not sculpt like a sculptor.” In relief sculpture, he could deal with the mass and form of the body in real space, and at the same time clarify his sense of how to represent the human form on canvas. We might say that the woman represented in this relief stands between the realms of sculpture and painting, or between three-dimensional reality and the flatness of painted representation.

Matisse developed these sculptures alongside work on major painted compositions in which human figure was often a central feature. He described his excursions into sculpture as "nourishing" his art as a whole, and it is often possible to see where these experiments in relief and his painting overlap.

Back, IV, Henri Matisse

Back, IV
1930-1931

Matisse drawing a kouros Greek at the Louvre, 1932.

Magadliene I
1901

Pierre Manguin
1905

Head with Necklace
1907

Dancer
1908

Man Removing a Thorn
1908

Marguerite
1915

Reclining Nude II
1927

Venus with Shell
1930