Research paper, Matisse Dance

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” — Nietzsche

“…But what I dream about most of all is achieving balance, purity, and tranquility in art, free from intricate and tumultuous plots. Such art would benefit both a diligent worker and a creative mind, offering a soothing respite akin to a comfortable chair that relieves physical fatigue.”

— Henri Matisse

The Dance of Inspiration: Matisse and Movement:

Henri Matisse’s renowned dance paintings, such as “Joy of Life,” “Dance (I),” and “Dance (II),” have always fascinated me. While they are frequently mentioned in art books, their true significance often seems overlooked. To grasp the essence of these masterpieces, one must delve into their broader context, particularly crucial for students of dance and art.

As I explored Matisse’s oeuvre further, I uncovered how deeply he was influenced by prominent dancers and their performances. Legends like Isadora Duncan, Loïe Fuller, and the Ballets Russes profoundly inspired him. Yet, Matisse did not merely replicate what he saw; he transformed these experiences into his own distinctive style.

One pivotal moment in Matisse’s artistic journey stood out to me: Paris, 1893. There, he witnessed Loïe Fuller, an extraordinary American dancer, mesmerizingly spinning and twisting under the glow of a backlit stage. Her large silk wings created breathtaking displays of color and light, leaving an indelible mark on Matisse and fueling his creative vision.

In early 1909, Shchukin commissioned Matisse to create a panel for the staircase of his mansion. By April, Matisse discussed with Charles Etienne his concept for a three-part ensemble designed to evoke and regulate the emotions of someone ascending a staircase.

In the end, Matisse abandoned the idea of a three-part ensemble, opting instead for two panels that were starkly contrasting. “Dance” depicted an uncontrollable whirlwind of women in a round dance, seemingly bursting beyond the confines of the vast space with vivid blues, greens, and bodily forms. Here, the contour played a crucial role, resembling the bold stroke of a primitive artist’s chisel. In stark contrast, the second panel titled “Music” replaced the female figures with a stable male presence, arranged akin to notes on a musical staff. This composition starkly contrasted dynamics with statics, portraying dance as a release of elemental energy. Some argue that the large-scale work was painted in the style reminiscent of William Blake’s painting “Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing.”

In autumn of 1930, after a cross-country train tour across the United States, Henri Matisse traveled to Philadelphia to meet with collector Albert Barnes at his educational foundation located in the city’s outskirts. During their meeting, Barnes gently critiqued the aging artist, noting that his recent paintings from Nice were charming yet somewhat lightweight compared to his earlier works, according to Cynthia Carolan, a Barnes Foundation docent now based in central Philadelphia.

Barnes proposed a commission: to create a painting to fit above the grand arches over the windows in his new gallery. Matisse accepted the challenge, which posed two significant hurdles. Firstly, he had never tackled such a large-scale project before; Carolan pointed out that the area above the museum’s windows spanned about 45 feet (13.7 meters), requiring three separate canvases. Secondly, Matisse had little experience in painting to architectural specifications, a far more intricate task than painting on portable canvases.

To begin the ambitious project, Matisse revisited an earlier work from 1910 titled “The Dance II,” a companion piece to “The Dance I” created in 1909. The first dance painting marked Matisse’s early move toward a simpler painting style, emphasizing basic elements of line, color, and form. In response to the rise of photography, which could realistically capture details beyond a painter’s reach, “The Dance I” aimed to push painting to convey emotions through fundamental visual elements rather than compete with photography’s precise realism.

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