PRINT September 1968

The Sculpture of Matisse, Part I

IF MATISSE WAS SURVIVED BY only his sculptures he would have to be regarded as a major artist, not because of influence, but rather for the intrinsic excellence of his works. The great retrospectives put on recently in this country and currently by the Arts Council in England have given these sculptures a greater exposure than during the artist’s lifetime. Paradoxically, it is the late cutouts such as the large Snail in the Tate Gallery and not Matisse’s modeled forms which today seem most prophetic and relevant to those artists in England and America who look upon sculpture as flat colored planes to be joined in variable relationships. While Matisse recognized important analogies between his sculpture and painting, at the end of his life he did not see the paper cutouts (whose sculptural possibilities he recognized) as a substitute for his earlier views of what sculpture should be. His last works included the modeled forms of Christ on the Cross and Standing Nude (Katia), of 1950, which posed a woman according to the conventions he had observed for almost fifty years. For Matisse painting and sculpture were similar but distinctive. We should not look upon his work as a painter’s view of sculpture, nor as “painterly” sculpture (sculpture aspiring to the affects of painting). The relative infrequency with which Matisse exhibited his pieces during his life and his forgetfulness during old age in their accounting to Alfred Barr should not cause us to underestimate their value to the artist.

Between 1900 and 1910, the period of his greatest sculptural productivity, Matisse was deeply involved with the issues that concerned the course sculpture should take as an alternative to those of the conservatives and Rodin. Matisse opted to continue modeling, which separated him from younger revolutionaries such as Nadelman, Archipenko, Brancusi, Duchamp-Villon, Picasso and Lipchitz, and as a consequence, except for Alfred Barr, historians have generally not been disposed to focus upon his work, which exerted little or no influence on other important sculptors. In four articles I propose to more closely inquire into the character of Matisse’s sculpture than has previously been done. This series is dedicated to Alfred Barr in gratitude for his contribution to our understanding of Matisse.

Climaxed by the number of his works, more than sixty, the credentials of Matisse as a sculptor are impressive. Already trained as a painter, he realized in the late eighteen nineties that he had to re-educate himself to be a sculptor. Though abbreviated, his self-education followed the conventional pattern of making art from art in the studio and the Louvre: the study of human and animal anatomy, consulting master sculptors such as Rodin and Bourdelle, and undertaking between 1900 and 1903 a “masterpiece” or free-standing figure to signal the achievements of his apprenticeship. By 1908, he felt sufficiently self-assured to teach sculpture, and by 1909 to undertake a relief of monumental proportions.

In Gustave Moreau, Matisse had an outstanding teacher who provided him with an early example of a painter who occasionally made sculpture in conjunction with his paintings. (Degas, Bonnard and Gérôme would have been other exemplars.) These small studies, given such literary titles as Hercules and Lucretia, were paraphrases of postures from art which may not have been lost upon Matisse. He not only made drawings from casts of ancient sculptures in the Cour Yvon at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but in one of his paintings of Moreau’s classroom a plaster cast is visible.1 Drawing as the common basis for sculpture and painting was dogma not only for the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but such liberal teachers as Moreau, Rodin and Matisse. When Matisse set up his own art school in a former convent in 1908, he continued an old tradition by having a cast of an ancient sculpture, the Apollo Piombino, placed in a niche in one of the main classrooms.2 That this was more than a token or symbolic concession to convention is revealed through Sarah Stein’s class notes of Matisse’s references to the sculpture during his demonstrations and critiques. Matisse favored the early classical Apollo because it was in keeping with his ideas and taste regarding clarity of form at the expense of anatomical information.

Contrary to what is generally written about Matisse, his first venture into sculpture was not the copy after Barye’s Jaguar Devouring a Hare, but rather a small, closely studied portrait of a woman made in 1894.3 The selection of a conventional medallion format and profile portrait at the outset was prophetic of his lifelong commitment to certain sculptural traditions.

The copying of another sculptor’s work by Matisse in 1899 was not surprising, but the selection of Barye’s morbid theme seems unexpected. In French art of the last century those sculptures which dealt most extensively and candidly with sadism were often produced by animaliers such as A. J. Barye and A. Cain. Brutality is the theme least identified with Matisse’s art and his biographers see his reworking of Barye’s sculpture as a kind of formal exercise. They also imply that Matisse did a dissection of a cat to further his understanding of the piece, but as Aragon points out, Matisse procured an already dissected feline from a “preparateur des Beaux Arts.”4 Unquestionably Matisse was taken with the expressiveness of the recumbent animal’s back, and its serpentine gesture may have indirectly influenced such of his later works as The Serpentine. Barye’s sculpture, however, achieves most of its intended drama when seen from the side at about eye level (made possible by its pedestal) so that the jaws enveloping the hare are fully visible. For two years Matisse studied Barye’s work while attending an evening course at the Ecole Communale de la Ville de Paris, and Matisse told Raymond Escholier that he “identified with the passion of the wild beast expressed by the rhythm of the masses.”5 Matisse was to later enjoin his sculpture students to empathize with the postures of the model no matter how passive the pose. To consider his copy as a disinterested study of masses, in short a sanitized esthetic interpretation of a brutal theme, seems wide of the mark. From this experience with the dramatic achieved by muscular as well as oral action, Matisse may have learned what he did not feel was appropriate for his sculpture, for in none of his later work is there a comparable vehement action or involvement between two subjects. His small study of a horse done in 1901, for example, does not involve the animal in movement.6

In writing about the long study of the Jaguar, Louis Aragon commented that Matisse “spent two years, at first with his eyes, with that which he saw, then with the eyes closed, with the notions of volume which alone influenced his touch.”7 Barye also taught Matisse the importance of a basic anatomical accuracy and while the younger artist muted his knowledge of musculature, he continued the original stress upon the joints which established the stance and disposition of the jaguar’s weight. This structural consciousness is what connects the Jaguar Devouring a Hare with the 1907 sculpture of the Reclining Nude. It was not for reasons of economy in modeling alone that Matisse did not follow Barye’s minute descriptiveness, for he did not want the eye distracted from the overall gesture and continuity of his sculptural form. His own facture reveals that by 1900 Matisse had found personal alternatives to the modeling construction used by Rodin and Bourdelle, the two sculptors he sought out for advice, and rejected the closely imitative mode of the portrait medallion. (Of what this facture consists is clearer and more developed in his next major effort, The Serf.)

In 1903, and presumably while still working on The Serf, Matisse undertook a paraphrase of Puget’s Écorché, which at the time was believed to have been done by Michelangelo. Casts of the Écorché were frequently found in artists’ studios and Cézanne drew from such a one. As with the dissected cat, the Écorché gave Matisse an accurate picture of the muscle-tendon system of the body. The robust muscular-looking contours and flexed joints are kept, but his reworking of the subject shows that he was not interested in the pathetic compression of the head by the hands which were either not done or removed and the face left undefined. Rather than follow the smooth patterns of the flayed anatomy, Matisse felt compelled to introduce new modeled accents, unpredictable in their dispersal. The original energy of the contorted figure with its impersonal making was matched by that of Matisse’s reforming touch. Anatomy was something he wanted to learn and forget. Least of all did he want to emulate Michelangelo’s dramatization of musculature. Beneath the unpredictably activated surface of Matisse’s Écorché, there is the strong implication of a solid articulated core of the body. The long planes that bridge the thigh region of the figure’s left leg, for example, are not rounded muscles but flattened surfaces made from previously modeled shapes that were cut away. Both the editing out of parts of limbs and the surface treatment serve to physically and visually compact the figure which is animated and not dissolved by its bristling overall highlights. Linking the Écorché with The Serf is Matisse’s impulse to augment the figure’s appearance of physical density, weight and grave mood while denying conventional rhetoric.


The studio was not only the locus of Matisse’s work as a sculptor, but throughout his art there is an unusual explicitness about the relation of his subject matter to its origins in the studio. Puget’s Écorché was well known as a studio prop. Even with The Serf, Matisse’s figure sculptures preserve their identity as being the result of a studio as opposed to a natural pose or simulated historical situation, as in Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. At the time of The Serf, salon sculptors, by the addition of props, costumes and titles, tried to disguise the original identity of the model and the studio situation that gave rise to the sculpture’s making. With the exception of his paraphrase of the Spinario of 1906 (Tireur d’Epine), a Crouching Venus, Venus on the Shell, of 1930 and 1932, and The Serf, Matisse demonstrated a fresh candor with respect to the identity of his motifs which will be discussed at greater length in the next article. With the almost complete departure of the male model from Matisse’s figural work after 1906 (The Christ on the Cross being the one exception), he also dispensed with what might be called illusionistic or literary titles. (Maillol, with whom Matisse was friendly, also gave up the male form after 1908, preferring like Matisse to forsake the greater dramatic possibilities of masculine bodies for the beauty achievable with the feminine form.) This candor had many ramifications which went beyond labeling to preserving the evidences of how the works were made.

The choice of the title, The Serf, may have come after the work was begun, but it was chosen before the bronze casting, as evidenced by its inscription on the base of the plaster in an area especially prepared to receive it. The paintings made simultaneously of the same model do not bear this title, which may have been suggested by the peasant origin of the model, his powerful physique, and the vogue in the late nineties for sculptures of workers and peasants, seen in public exhibitions from such artists as Meunier, Dalou, Rodin and Minne. By at least two authors this title has been mistranslated into “The Slave,” which introduces uncalled for pathetic associations and historical misunderstanding.8 Just as misleading are attempts to characterize this figure as “heroic.” Slouched shoulders and an extended stomach hardly make this figure a candidate for heroism, and Matisse was too much aware of postural meanings in the history of art to have missed the point. The bracing of the feet and slack posture of the torso speak of an academie, a stock academic studio pose which the model had to strike for hours. Louis Aragon estimated that Matisse spent more than two thousand hours working on this piece, and to this could be added the time for the paintings.9 The combination of resignation and fatigue seen in the model could have inspired its nomination.

The inordinate amount of time Matisse spent on this sculpture may have been due to his recent greater commitment to the figure and the desire to master its construction. The fact that there are no preliminary modeled sketches or other versions indicates that like a palimpsest, Matisse worked and reworked his ideas with regard to anatomy and facture on this one sculpture.10 (A number of drawn sketches and paintings should be considered as complementary to what he was doing in the sculpture.) The absence of differing scale versions of The Serf is in itself revealing about the difference between Matisse and sculptors like Rodin, Bourdelle and Maillol, who scaled up their studies for the final version, and then, as in Rodin’s case, enlarged or reduced the finished work for commercial purposes. Although writing about the unalterable relationship of conception to scale in painting, Matisse could have been addressing himself to sculpture when in 1908 he said, “An artist who wants to transpose a composition on to a larger canvas must conceive it over again in order to preserve its expression; he must alter its character and not just fill in the squares into which he has divided his canvas.”11 Contemporary procedures for enlarging a sculpture being mechanical (the use of compasses), were even more impersonal than those used by painters.

In the Matisse literature The Serf is commonly paired with Rodin’s Walking Man, first exhibited in its original small scale of about three feet in Paris beginning in June of 1900 when Rodin had the first one-man sculpture retrospective in history. Allegedly Rodin’s striding figure influenced the pose of The Serf. (Herbert Read wrote that the poses of The Serf and the St. John the Baptist were “exactly the same.”12) According to Alfred Barr, The Serf was begun in the winter of 1900, but adding to the case for a connection between these two sculptures is the fact that Matisse’s model, known in 1900 as Bevilaqua, was in fact the Abruzzi peasant formerly named Pignatelli who came to Rodin’s studio in 1877 or 1878 and posed for the legs of the Walking Man, and then its enlargement into the John the Baptist.13 (The torso existed by itself before 1878.) Ever since the success of this last sculpture in the Salon of 1880, Pignatelli had found employment among young sculptors who thought that by using Rodin’s model they could fathom some of the great artist’s secrets. That Matisse was conscious of Bevilaqua’s connection with Rodin and talked about the latter’s work methods with him is verifiable.

The stance of The Serf is metaphorically that struck by Matisse with regard to the sculpture of Rodin. By contrast with that of the Walking Man, The Serf’s is a fixed, immobile posture, the weight almost evenly divided between the two legs which diagonally straddle the base. One of the issues to which certain sculptors addressed themselves even before 1900 was whether or not freestanding sculpture should continue to create the illusion of movement. The Walking Man was an affirmation of the tradition which saw the “role” and “triumph” of sculpture as the animation of inert material and creation of an illusion whereby the modeled figure appeared to move before our eyes.14 By placing both feet of the Walking Man on the ground, Rodin was showing the beginning and end of the act of taking a single stride. It was a resumé of movements undertaken at different times. Rodin wanted the viewer to observe the figure from all angles, to see its weight transferred forward off the back foot, and to seem to lose and then recover its balance. (From the back the figure seems to launch itself upward and forward, while from the front there is a decided braking action as the weight comes down on the lead foot.) From every angle Matisse’s figure is solidly rooted to the base, and nowhere is there a suggestion of weight shifting as in the upper torso of the Walking Man. Matisse took the position that there should be no illusion of movement in free-standing sculpture and that immobility was crucial to achieving a superior form of beauty.

In abandoning the literal representation of movement, it is possible to reach towards a higher ideal of beauty. Look at an Egyptian statue. It looks rigid to us. However, we feel in it the image of a body capable of movement and which despite its stiffness is animated. Movement is in itself unstable and is not suited to something durable like a statue unless the artist has realized the entire action of which he represents only a moment.15

Similar views were expressed by the sculptor Adolf Hildebrand in 1893 with the publication in German of his On The Problem of Form in Sculpture. (It was published in French in 1907.) Hildebrand, Gauguin and Maillol all agreed that simulated movement should be confined to relief sculpture. Far from being an imitation of the Walking Man, The Serf was made in reaction to what it stood for.

It is possible that in the beginning, or after seeing the Walking Man, Matisse may have contemplated a striding figure, a not uncommon academic pose for drawing and painting study. His paintings of Bevilaqua include one which suggests that he is moving.16 The detached raised foot, modeled by Matisse in 1900, might have been connected to an early project for a sculpture of a walking man. With his concerns for accuracy, the sculpture could have been a study of how the foot pushes off from the ground. Such a study by anatomical detail of a sculptural problem links Matisse with Rodin’s studies of hands and feet, and seemingly contradicts his own statement about the difference between their respective work habits. (In the following statement Matisse was commenting on Rodin’s observations of the drawings the younger artist had brought for criticism. Rodin encouraged him to do detailed drawings and bring them back.)

My work discipline was already the reverse of Rodin’s. But I did not realize it then for I was quite modest and each day brought its revelation. I could not understand how Rodin could work on his St. John by cutting off the hand and holding it on a peg; he worked on details holding it in his left hand . . . anyhow keeping it detached from the whole, then replacing it on the end of the arm; then he tried to find its direction in accord with his general movement. Already I could envisage the general architecture of a work of mine, replacing explanatory details by a living and suggestive synthesis.17

Matisse undoubtedly learned of Rodin’s way of working from Bevilaqua, for the John the Baptist preceded The Serf by more than twenty years. The foot that he made was probably not a detached part of the actual sculpture of The Serf, judging by the latter’s posture with the feet laterally spread wide apart, and the set of the muscles of the right leg. However, both the existence of this strongly modeled foot and the absence of the forearms of The Serf show that Matisse did accept Rodin’s revolutionary premise that a complete sculpture need not presuppose the human form intact. (I will discuss Matisse’s use of the partial figure in the third article of this series.)

It may be argued that the armless and headless Walking Man influenced Matisse in the making of a partial figure. An old photograph, taken by one of Matisse’s students from 1907 to 1909, Hans Purrmann, shows Matisse posed before the plaster version of The Serf in which the forearms are still attached.18 Thus Matisse’s original vision of the “general architecture” of this sculpture comprised the entire figure. We have been variously told that the forearms were lost due to an accident either before or during casting. The firm construction of the arms, the resting of the hands on the thighs, makes the account of an accident to the plaster less credible. In view of the fact that Matisse still had the plaster from which his moulds were made, such an accident during casting could have been easily rectified. It is more likely that Matisse decided at some point before casting to cut away the arms (a knife at least trued the area of separation), perhaps to liberate the silhouette of the thighs as Rodin had often done in his partial figures. While the Walking Man may have been in the back of his mind as a rationale for his editing, so were decidedly personal views on what constituted expression in sculpture as well as painting.

The Serf is not an expressive sculpture, primarily because of the pose or the still impressive body of the middle-aged model. Contrast the faces of John the Baptist (probably Bevilaqua twenty years younger19), and that of Matisse’s figure. Rodin’s prophet is in the act of speaking, his face mobilized for the passionate efforts of communication. The Serf’s eyes are downcast and the face immobile, but still having the potential for expression. In his well-known and great statement, Notes of a Painter, Matisse explained in 1908 his views on expression, and an illustration of what he opposed is clearly based on Rodin’s sculpture.

What I am after, above all, is expression . . . I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have for life and my way of expressing it. Expression to my way of thinking does not consist of the passion mirrored upon a human face or betrayed by a violent gesture. The whole arrangement of my picture is expressive. The place occupied by the figures or objects, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything plays a part. Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements at the painter’s disposal for the expression of his feelings . . . I could mention the name of a great sculptor who produces some admirable pieces but for him a composition is nothing but the grouping of fragments and the result is a confusion of expression.20

While the plaster version of The Serf intact does not betray a violent gesture in Rodin’s terms, the closed if not clenched fists may have seemed distractive to Matisse. (They could have seemed compositionally expendable and thematically redundant.) Matisse may have been demonstrating that he would compromise what was dramatic in theme for a more effective decorative arrangement. He told his sculpture students in 1909, “Put in no holes that hurt the ensemble as between thumb and fingers lying at the side.”21

More than in the Jaguar, with The Serf Matisse was affirming that expressiveness in sculpture should reside in how the artist worked rather than in what he said by the interpretation of human action. He was cutting himself off from that great tradition of Western rhetorical sculpture since the end of the Middle Ages which Rodin was so avid to continue. But Rodin also realized twenty years earlier than Matisse that the partial figure forced the viewer to focus upon how a sculpture was made, and it is an error to totally polarize the views of these two artists. (There are heads like Rodin’s The Great Head of Iris that also fulfill the general aims of expression found in Matisse’s statement.)

Critics sympathetic to conservative art around 1900 were complaining that too much sculpture was being made without a show of feeling on the artist’s part. What Matisse was opening for sculpture as well as painting was a more direct expression of the artist’s sentiments and sensations while retaining stock, passive studio postures and ignoring illustrative art. Comparable to the injunction to play expressively that comes from the musical notation “espressivo,” Matisse was for the artist finding in his modeling an equivalent for his own feeling and at the same time preserving decorative unity.

Crucial to Matisse’s views on art are his conceptions of the essential. (He was not alone in the use of this word for Rodin, Maillol, Bourdelle, Brancusi, Duchamp-Villon and many others were similarly concerned but differed in their vision of its meaning.) Matisse was concerned that the artist distill out of his experiences what was essential (or durable) in his response to the model; he wanted to preserve only the essential in the form of the work of art; and he wanted to keep the essential character of his subject (“Never forget that [your model] is a Negro.”22). What makes The Serf such an exciting sculpture in the context of Matisse’s art is that we can see the patient early working out of these ideas and the difficulties they imposed.

One might well ask how could an artist who worked for three years on the same sculpture express his feelings inspired by the model? First of all, Matisse counted upon a continued openness of attitude towards the encounter, either with each new model or successive confrontations with the same figure. He felt this would permit strong emotional reactions to arise in the artist. It was then a problem of sifting through these various sensations and finding those that were most enduring. The artist had to train himself to be able to return again and again to his model and sculpture and recapture the feeling he wanted.

The model must not be made to agree with a preconceived theory or effect. It must impress you, awaken in you an emotion, which in turn you seek to express . . . Some years ago . . . I would have put down the passing sensations of a moment; they would not completely define my feelings and the next day I might not recognize what they meant. I want to reach that state of condensation of sensations which constitutes a picture . . . One can judge of the vitality and power of an artist when after having received impressions from nature he is able to organize his sensations to return in the same mood on different days, voluntarily to continue receiving these impressions . . . Underneath this succession of moments which constitutes the superficial existence of things animate and inanimate and which is continually obscuring and transforming them, it is yet possible to search for a truer, more essential character which the artist will seize so that he may give to reality a more lasting interpretation.23

For Matisse the essentials of form comprised being able to:

. . . envisage the general architecture of a work, replacing explanatory details by a living and suggestive synthesis . . . everything must be constructed . . . exaggeration should be in accordance with the character of the model . . . see from the first your proportions and do not lose them . . . the mechanics of construction are the establishment of the oppositions which create the equilibrium of directions . . . In all the great periods the essentials of form, the big masses and their relation . . . never forget the constructive lines, axes of shoulders and pelvis; nor of the legs, arms, neck and head. This building up of the form gives its essential expression.24

The surfaces of The Serf and the Walking Man manifest their artists’ avoidance of stylization, a mutual love of the body but substantially different approaches to its celebration. For Rodin simulation of flesh, its sensuous continuity and appearance of being stretched over perfectly formed organs was primary, but not exclusive as seen by his frequently unmodulated surfaces. He often displayed a finesse and smoothness in modeling—which Matisse never sought to emulate. The front surface of the Walking Man is a combination of firmly modeled passages and the marks of accidents caused both by the sculptor, such as digging into previously finished areas, and those of the work’s casting. (The work is reparable as Henry Moore has observed.25) Unlike Rodin, Matisse did not seek the appearance of a ruin from antiquity. Consistent with his aims of realizing the big masses and their relation, Matisse does not carry his definition of areas like the pectorals and abdomen to the limits of Rodin, but there are analogies between the working of the back in the two sculptures. (Rodin’s back was less defined than the front because it was not made from a live model as the torso’s inspiration could have been found in Michelangelo’s art.) Matisse’s facture involves a “suggestive synthesis” of things known and observed about the body, subject to esthetic intuition about when to stop in order to achieve an overall balance of accents. He would understate anatomy but strive for a greater density of esthetic events than did Rodin. Looking at detailed views of The Serf shows that he did not systematize his touch, but improvised from area to area. The back of the left shoulder is a bulging faceted mound, explicable in its seemingly excessive projection from a profile view that shows how it counterbalances the sagging extended stomach. The deep thorax cavity has been strongly felt and patiently excavated, while the base of the spine has been rudely gouged. As with the Jaguar, he added the editing possibilities of a sculpture knife to the modeling action of his fingers. (The resulting facets are analogous to, but not as pervasive as, the broad planes seen in his paintings of Bevilaqua.) The vertical slicing action of the knife on the back of The Serf’s right leg, for instance, serves to accentuate the direction of the muscles and general stance of the figure. Some years later he was to tell his students, “In a man standing erect all the parts must go in that direction to aid that sensation.”26 The sculptor Jimmy Rosati pointed out while we were studying this sculpture together that these large flat planes influence the reception of light by creating potentially larger luminous zones to contrast with the smaller, more varied accents in the modeled passages. Matisse did not try to temper the sliced edges, and in this frank exposure of editing there is a similarity to Rodin’s earlier development of this technique which can be seen on the back of his Flying Figure of the early eighteen nineties.27 (Rodin seems to have edited out passages that he felt didn’t work because of faulty modeling, or because he did not like the results of enlargement by his assistants such as Lebosse.) Matisse used the knife more frequently on an individual sculpture than did Rodin and more as a constructive rather than destructive device. It was a way of establishing the broad planes that allowed the figure to carry from a distance and made its “architecture” more explicit. The conceit of Matisse, shared with Cézanne, was that he could make a body which appeared more well knit and solidly put together than in actual life.

By not trueing his knife-made accepts, Matisse called attention to his hand and the feeling behind each decision. What was to dismay him about younger sculptors such as Duchamp-Villon, who moved away from modeling and whose Horse he saw in 1914, was the emphasis upon intellect and avoidance of evidence of emotion and the hand in the execution.28


Between Matisse and Rodin there intervenes the influence of two important artists which helps to account for the difference in motivation and character of their respective styles and factures. Before 1900, Matisse had acquired from Vollard one of Cézanne’s paintings of bathers, along with a Rodin portrait of Rochefort.29 The painting rather than the bust had a positive, tangible impact on his own sculpture. What Matisse could have learned from Cézanne’s work that was appropriate to sculptures such as The Serf, were the constructive and expressive rather than descriptive functions of each touch which synthesized anatomical and esthetic requirements. Each passage, whether in a painting or sculpture, had to satisfy the needs of the general direction of the anatomy, its projection or recession (values or sculptural “color”), and be coordinated with adjacent areas in terms of overall effect. From Cézanne could also have come the example of reforming rather than deforming the body to augment its compactness and solidity. The mutual goal of both artists was an esthetic carpentry which would make the beholder conscious of an irrevocable joining and interdependence of parts. The older painter’s avoidance of preconceptions and facile solutions to achieve charming or ingratiating form in favor of open-ended editing found sympathetic response in Matisse. His search for a “condensation of sensations” echoes Cézanne’s distrust of Impressionism.

In 1900, Matisse studied with Bourdelle for a few months. At the time Bourdelle was in charge of the Academie Rodin, which eventually became his own art school. Bourdelle could have informed him of Rodin’s methods and views of sculpture, but also his personal misgivings and desire to find a new way of rendering the figure. According to Bourdelle’s own recollection, his Head of Apollo, done in 1900, was a turning point and showed him the way to “separate from Rodin.” (The side of the head scarred by accidents was the “Rodin” side; the smoother, broader treatment of the other profile was for him a new point of departure.) He had come to dislike what in Rodin he felt was: “. . . the too easily imitable tragically agitated faces, and holes in the planes of the flesh . . . I escaped from the hole, the accidental plane, in order to find the permanent planes. I researched the essential in structures . . . I searched for universal rhythm . . . ”30

Bourdelle’s words show that he and Matisse spoke the same language and had compatible aims. Ironically in the late eighteen nineties Rodin felt that with the monument to Balzac he had surpassed his previous efforts in achieving the “essential” in sculpture through the finding of “the great planes” and effects which eliminated considerable detail. But for all his talk of “geometry,” “architecture,” “the great planes” and the “essential,” to younger artists, Rodin’s sculpture seemed too formless, prone to chance and insufficiently explicit in its esthetic construction. Bourdelle’s sculpture made before 1900 (shown in a beautiful exhibition last year by Claude Bernard in Paris) could have provided Matisse with models of the power possible on an intimate scale, the effects of leaving exposed a vigorous touch, minimalizing of bodily textures and a reduced focus on the face and extremities. His acceptance of the validity of the partial figure as a complete work of art would have impressed Matisse. Bourdelle’s excellent Torso of Riri, with its imaginatively variegated surface, still manifests the firm presence of the body’s internal structure which also gives the figure its dignified erectness, thus making the torso expressive through bearing and facture. By word and act Bourdelle shared Matisse’s sensuous love of the human body and its remaking.

As with Cézanne we cannot look upon Matisse’s sculptures as disinterested esthetic studies of the human form. Both artists wanted to preserve the essential character of the model. Matisse’s most impressive statement about the subject of his art, made in 1908, uses as an example an “Italian model” who was probably Bevilaqua, and he was also referring, no doubt, not only to his paintings, but The Serf:

What interests me most is neither still life nor landscape, but the human figure. It is through it that I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have towards life. I do not insist upon the details of the face. I do not care to repeat them with anatomical exactness, although I happen to have an Italian model whose appearance at first suggests a purely animal existence, yet I succeeded in picking out among the lines of his face those that suggest that deep gravity which persists in every human being. A work of art must carry in itself its complete significance and impose it upon the beholder even before he can identify the subject matter.31

Matisse’s turning to figure sculpture in The Serf in 1900 thus coincides with a shift in focus that had previously centered on landscapes and still lifes. We can also see that his 1908 statement reflects ideas that go back many years earlier to a pre-Fauve period and to which the making of sculpture as well as painting made such an important contribution. His isolation of “gravity” as a universal dignifying human quality may help to explain Matisse’s antipathy to movement as a subject for sculpture. He wanted sculptures that had some universal basis in their appeal and which served as the artist’s spiritual expression in lieu of the illustration of religious subjects that filled the salons. Matisse thus belongs with artists like Rodin, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Minne and Munch who at the end of the last century were looking for qualities derived from the means of art and subjects that permitted personal alternatives to a discredited tradition of religious art.

The Serf stands at the beginning of Matisse’s sculpture and that of this century as a durable and impressive example of the new ways by which this artist believed modern sculpture could give a look to feeling without recourse to drama and pathos. Feeling was to be the motive, not motif of sculpture. The suggestive synthesis achieved by Matisse in this great work included the preservation of the subject’s spirit while giving more direct expression to that of the artist.32 With The Serf, Matisse emerges as a sculptor of power and vitality, capable of self-mastery by his patient, disciplined reaction to ideas born of impulse. Rather than establishing a fixed style or imitating another man’s art, his objectives were to personally discover the nature of modeling and the model, the precedent for which may have been Rodin’s most important legacy for Matisse.

Albert Elsen



1. Alfred Barr, Matisse, His Art and His Public, 1951, p. 295. Mr. Barr’s important book, which did the most to first attract attention to Matisse’s sculpture in this country, remains indispensable.

2. Barr, p. 22.

3. Henri Matisse, a catalog of his retrospective of 1966 organized by UCLA Art Council and UCLA Art Galleries, texts by J. Leymarie, H. Read, W. S. Lieberman, p. 123.

4. Raymond Escholier, Matisse Ce Vivant, 1956, p. 164.

5. Escholier, p. 48.

6. Catalogue of Forty Nine Bronzes by Matisse, Sotheby and Co., Sale of July 7, 1960, Plate 4.

7. Escholier, p. 164.

8. UCLA retrospective exhibition catalog, p. 21.

9. Louis Aragon, Matisse en France, 1943.

10. In the spring of 1967 I talked to Jean Matisse at his home in Pontoise and he did not recall any modeled studies for The Serf.

11. Barr, p. 120.

12. UCLA retrospective catalog, 1966, p. 20. In his article “Two Early Drawings by Henri Matisse,” published in the December 1962 Gazette des Beaux Arts, Henry Geldzahler alleges that a Matisse drawing of Bevilaqua in the J. K. Thanhauser collection (illustrated on p. 498) shows the model “in the aggressive striding attitude of the Walking Man.” This argument is based on a misreading of the pose in the drawing wherein the model’s widespread feet are at right angles to each other. George H. Hamilton writes of Matisse’s “taking over the stance of the Walking Man, as well as Rodin’s modeled surfaces,” Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880–1940, 1967, p. 109.

13. Escholier, p. 80 (Bevilaqua’s name is misspelled).

14. Paul Gsell, “Chez Rodin,” L’Art et Les Artistes, January 1907, p. 406.

15. Barr, p. 120–121.

16. Barr, reproduced on page 304 and called, “Academie d’Homme.” Rodin as an art student had done a painting of this academie (seen from the back) which is on view in the Paris Museé Rodin, but has not been illustrated to my knowledge.

17. UCLA retrospective catalog, 1966, p. 21.

It is interesting to read Rodin’s own views on the relation of details to the whole conception:

“When a good sculptor models a statue, whatever it is, he must first clearly conceive the general idea, then, until his task is ended, he must keep this idea of the whole in his mind, in order to subordinate and ally to it every small detail of his work.” (Art, Conversations with Paul Gsell, 1916, p. 154.)

18. This photograph was brought to my attention by Sidney Geist after my lecture on the sculpture of Matisse at the New York Studio School last spring.

l9. Both Ruth Mirolli and John Tancock, curator of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, believe the head of the John the Baptist to be based on that of Pignatelli. I am not as sure, and it may have been derived from Danielli, an artist friend of Rodin’s as indicated by Georges Grappe, Catalogue du Musée Rodin, 1944, p.17–18.

20. Barr, p. 119. Gustave Moreau, Matisse’s teacher from 1892–1897, was known to have told his students that “Nature is only an excuse for the artist to express himself.” The idea of art as self-expression coming from a Beaux Arts instructor was unusual for the time. (This quotation was given without a source by Jean-Albert Cartier, “Gustave Moreau, Professeur a l’Ecole des Beaux Arts,” Gazette des Beaux Arts, Mai-Juin, 1963, p. 352.)

21. Barr, 551.

22. Barr, 550.

23. Barr, 120, 122.

24. Barr, 550–551.

25. Albert Elsen in collaboration with Henry Moore, “Rodin’s Walking Man As Seen by Henry Moore,” Studio International, July–August 1967.

26. Barr, 551.

27. Auguste Rodin, catalog of an exhibition by the Slatkin Gallery, 1962, with an introduction by Leo Steinberg, p. 25.

28. Walter Pach, Queer Thing Painting, 1938, p. 145.

29. Barr, Cézanne’s painting of Three Bathers is reproduced on page 18.

30. Gaston Varenne, Antoine Bourdelle, Par Lui-Meme., 1937.

31. Barr, 122.

32. The research and writing of these articles was made possible by a Guggenheim Fellowship and a research allocation from the Stanford University Department of Art and Architecture out of its Carnegie Corporation of New York grant.