Some of the most famous paintings in the world were created by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), indisputably one of the most famous painters in the entirety of art history.
After receiving his legal degree in 1888, he regretted his career choice and opted for art school instead. He began studying in Paris with William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1891, but subsequently moved to the more progressive studio of Gustave Moreau. In these years, Matisse built a modest art collection of Cezanne paintings, Gauguin paintings and work by other Paris-based artists. Matisse later commented that his acquisition of Cezanne’s Bathers was profoundly influential.
Henri Matisse. The Dance, 1909-1910. Oil on canvas, 8'6" by 12'10". Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
This influence is plainly visible in two of the most acclaimed Matisse paintings, the pendant, or paired, works known as Dance (La Danse) and Music (La Musique). Both art paintings were commissioned in 1909 by the Russian merchant, Sergei Shchukin, who was a leading collector of late 19th and early 20th century art. By 1914, Shchukin had acquired 37 Matisse paintings; the bulk of these were bequeathed to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and form the core of its expansive collection of Matisse paintings.
In 1910, Matisse submitted La Danse and La Musique for the Salon d’Automne, the Salon or art exhibition organized in 1903 as an alternative to the more conservative Paris Salon. Although these monumental nudes were gender-neutral, this pair of Matisse paintings provoked a scandal that culminated with Shchukin's rejection of them.
The famed art collector intended for La Danse and La Musique to adorn the stairwell of his Moscow house, the Troubetzkoy Palace (top right). He claimed, though, that the sexuality of these Matisse paintings would offend his daughters and Russian friends. After protestations from Matisse, Shchukin recanted after one "explicit" portion was “touched up”.
Henri Matisse. The Music (La Musique), 1910. Oil on canvas, 8'6" by 12'9". Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Inspiration for La Danse came to Matisse from various sources, including the dance floor of the Parisian cabaret, Moulin de la Galette, and from two previous art paintings, Joie de Vivre (1905) and an earlier version of Dance (now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York).
The nudes of the Hermitage La Danse are amorphous, mythical creatures who skip and dance as if they were vying to unite Man, Earth and Heaven. Matisse’s palette of only green, red, and blue captures, as he wished, "the bluest of blues for the sky" and "the greenest of greens for the earth". This simple but powerful palette captures the joyous vitality of his dancers.
In the pendant painting, though, this palette seems incongruous with the placidity of the musicians - the figures sanguinely sit or play instruments and the reds, blues, and greens appear muted. Although La Musique lacks the vitality of its pendant, La Danse deservedly is one of the most famous paintings in the world.
Read about more Matisse paintings and works from other famous painters in Masterpiece Cards, a set of art history flashcards that span Rennaisance art through Pop art.
Each of 250 famous paintings is reproduced faithfully; on the reverse is an analysis of the work written by an art history pro or two.
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