PRINT October 1968

The Sculpture of Matisse, Part II

MATISSE’S FRIENDS OBSERVED THAT sculpture served the artist by “enriching” his resources and providing another outlet for his vast energies.1 “I practiced sculpture, or rather modeling,” commented Matisse, “as a complementary study to put my ideas into order.”2 The ideas to which he referred, as discussed in the previous article and traceable to the Notes of a Painter, of 1908, included the search for finding ways of expressing his feeling for life, the nature of expression and how it was to be achieved in composition, and what constituted the essential in nature and form. It is not paradoxical that an artist who relied so greatly on instinct and sensibility should write about “ideas.” Matisse, who was a thoughtful, complex artist, favored a varied and empirical confrontation of artistic problems as well as of nature.

The purposes of sculpture were no different for Matisse than those of his painting. He was not interested in historical or literary subjects (except in book illustrations), large public commissions that celebrated civic heroes or that in a chauvinistic way educated and elevated the populace. “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be for every mental worker . . . like an appeasing influence . . . something like a good armchair . . .”3 As much from his paintings as from photographs, one can see that Matisse’s sculptures were intended for studio and home, works of art among other works of art, whether paintings, tasteful furniture or floral arrangements. The small scale of most of his sculptures encouraged their domestic location on sculpture stands, on tables, mantels and floors. They were always to be accessible not only to the eye, but also the hand. "A sculpture must invite us to handle it as an object, just as the sculptor must feel in making it the particular demands of volume and mass.4

Smallness of scale was desirable in terms of its ideal location, the small studios he had before 1909, and the reduced demands upon his time away from painting. It was also a challenge in that he felt “the smaller the bit of sculpture the more essentials of form must exist.”5

Although often motivated by commercial rather than esthetic reasons, at the end of the last century many sculptors were turning to apartment-sized sculptures. Part of the interest in small decorative sculpture was inspired by the French discoveries in 1880–83 at Myrina of Hellenistic terracottas, many of which came to the Louvre and were to attract artists like Gérôme, Bourdelle and Matisse. After 1900, the sculpture salons increasingly made space for vitrines filled with hundreds of figurines. Duchamp-Villon’s work between 1902 and 1914 exemplifies a serious young sculptor’s concern with indoor sculpture.6 Fred Licht has argued without qualification that, beginning with Canova, modern sculpture is “homeless” and no longer part of the “routine of life,” as in the past. Matisse, Bourdelle, Maillol, Rodin, Duchamp-Villon, to name a few, believed to the contrary.7 Feeling that the number of successful civic sculptures is restricted, Licht speculates that “Generally, our modern experience of modern sculpture comes to us not in the healthy, natural manner of things which belong to our daily lives, but through visits to museums.” Setting aside Licht’s amusing implications that museum visits are unnatural and unhealthy, his view of modern sculpture ignores its actual continuation of serious decorative purposes.

Evidence that Matisse thought of his small sculptures as separate entities and not simply as studies for painted figures comes from his many paintings in which the sculptures are undisguised. Far from being disinterested in subject matter, as many have claimed, the sculptures, along with flowers, goldfish, rugs and beautiful women, were necessary for his hedonistic art. The occasion of painting such of his sculptures as Madeleine I could have afforded him the opportunity of changing what he had done in modeling, but more likely the demands of painting and its color would have conditioned the changes of outline and proportion. Few are the sculptures reworked after having appeared in a painting.8 (The Serf and Reclining Nude, of 1907, would be such exceptions.) This should not be read as meaning that the sculptures were not influenced by what Matisse was doing in painting, and this interrelationship will be discussed in the fourth article dealing with the Backs.


In certain respects the sculpture of Matisse is art about art. Unlike Rodin, he was not interested in the natural or fugitive pose unselfconsciously assumed by the model. All of his small figure sculptures derive from standard studio poses of the time or were taken from museum art. To this extent he continued a Beaux Arts ideal and is related not only to conservative salon sculptors, but also to other Fauve painters. The poses in his small sculptures have their near counterpart in those from antiquity and such 19th-century salon artists as Boucher, Delaplanche, Marqueste, Gérôme, etc. Matisse did not share Rodin’s avid search for new truths about life by means of what, for sculpture, were new postures and movements. He did not share Rodin’s faith that anyone was a possible subject for good sculpture, and like his academic colleagues, he insisted upon beautiful models.9 Why this conservatism in Matisse? The answer may lie in his statement of 1908 concerning what he thought would be the charge of his writing in platitudes: “The role of the artist, like that of the scholar, consists in penetrating truths well known to him as to others, but which take on for him a new aspect and so enable him to master them in their deepest significance.”10


In 1901 Matisse made the first of two sculptures whose title refers not to some goddess or mythological figure, as in salon art, but to the name of his model. Madeleine I is shown in a somewhat exaggerated hipshot pose, her arms folded across her breasts. Attempts have been made to connect this work with Art Nouveau because of the relative fluidity of the contours and swaying stance. But Matisse’s dislike for affecting a style, and paintings by the artist of the same pose in the studio, show that this work was a life study.11 What gives the small sculpture a contemporaneity foreign to its salon counterparts is Matisse’s fidelity to the model’s identity, including her hair style. Conservative sculptors, such as Pradier in his Psyche, recreated exotic or ancient coiffures to lend credence to the assumed identity of their models. The folded arms of Madeleine freed the long contours of her torso and thighs; and we can see in the work of Pradier and Idrac’s Salambo, comparable positionings to get these troublesome limbs out of the way, but the studio pose was disguised by the addition of a butterfly and serpent. Rodin’s Eve has a self-hugging gesture, which, with the bowed head, transforms the model into a guilt-ridden figure. By foregoing Pradier’s butterfly, Idrac’s serpent and Rodin’s reference to original sin, Matisse was establishing a position whereby the model was stripped and preserved only in her nakedness. Matisse must have been aware of the crisis in credibility with which salon artists were confronted at the turn of the century. Legions of Salambos, Psyches, Eves and Floras numbed the imagination and feelings of critics and salon-goers. Matisse could not abide the formal conventions, the tricks and gimmicks by which the nude was to be realized almost mechanically (by life casts or calipers) in sculpture. He could not settle for a fixed style or impersonal rules, as we can see in Madeleine II. “Any of us can repeat a fine sentence, but few can penetrate its meaning.”12

Like his drawings, prints and paintings, the sculpture of Matisse knew his ideas about modalities. At one sitting he could draw a model in a hard angular mode, and in the next by a soft, curvilinear sequence of contours. Meyer Schapiro has referred to these as Matisse’s “feminine and masculine” modes.13 They were differences in voice, in the pronunciation of a silhouette. Modalities in art are as old as the Greeks. Before Matisse they were governed by ideas of decorum with respect to the appropriateness of mode to subject. In rhetoric, music, as well as the visual arts, from the Renaissance through the 20th century, stylistic modes were recognized as ways by which the artist could achieve a suitability of form to theme no matter what his feelings at the time he worked. Rodin had a strong sense of modal decorum in his public and private works, and Picasso still maintains this in his art. Where Matisse differs from tradition is that his modalities are practiced on the same model and pose and derive from taste and his feelings. Put another way, Matisse’s modes depend more upon moods than motifs. Madeleine II, for instance, is not more closely modeled in form than its predecessor, as one might expect. Having gained a fluency and continuity of contour in the first work, one would have anticipated sharper definition or refinement of surface in its sequel, but the reverse occurred. From the beginning, Matisse resisted the attractions of idealization, or the progressive simplification so important to both conservatives and younger artists like Brancusi and Duchamp-Villon. Matisse was to say several years after 1903, “You must forget all your theories, all your ideas before the subject,” and the change in the second version of Madeleine could have resulted from a different “condensation of sensations,” when he confronted the model or finished first version. Sculpture, like painting, responded to the complexity of Matisse’s makeup. While undertaking the long, painstaking construction of the somber Serf, he felt compelled to more promptly realize his figures and become involved with different problems, moods and models.


The possibilities sculpture afforded him as his painting changed in the crucial years down to 1906 are apparent in his statuette of a Young Girl and the painting titled Le Luxe II. Matisse may have posed this sculpture problem for himself: How can one make an interesting sculpture of a perfectly immobile model who stands erect with weight equally supported by the legs? (All conservative sculptors resorted to counterpoise by shifting more weight to one leg so as to activate the body’s structure, and this was true of Matisse’s figure paintings.) The answer he found was the variety and expressiveness of the sculpture’s interior modeling. Unlike Rodin, Matisse, who wanted to envisage the general architecture of his work from the start, did not build his figures by observing successive contours from all angles. Modeling was done within a few observed contours, such as the front and back. Matisse’s painting style had arrived by 1906 at the new option of simply silhouetting figures with their interior areas painted monochromatically or undifferentiated with respect to modeling. In sculpture Matisse could continue to realize actual volumes and enjoy the surface variety and responsiveness to light of the body’s mass. Not by anecdote or action but by the touch was the sculpture brought to life. No dialogue with butterflies or serpent’s jaws, just that of fingers and clay.

What Matisse’s figurines may lose in terms of the illusionistic sensuousness of the subject (as in Marqueste’s Galatea), they gain in sensuousness of the actual physical sculpture. They do address themselves to the hand as well as the eye. In the Standing Nude with Raised Arms, Matisse employed the classic beauty pose. Even more than in his paintings, his modeled women acquire a greater coarseness or animality with their enlarged buttocks, short legs and assertive breasts. (If there is a comparable treatment in painting, it is his Gypsy Woman, of 1905–06.)14 It was an academic maxim to correct the physical deficiencies of the model. Assuming that those of Matisse were sometimes short of shank, he made no concession to cosmetic perfection. It is more likely, in view of his preference for beautiful models, that Matisse’s own passionate feelings acted upon the proportions as well as shapes of the parts. Sculpture was not just an out let for his artistic energies, it served his sexual feelings in ways not possible through painting.


For those historians who feel compelled to corset art by labels, Matisse’s small feminine statuettes of 1901–1909 are the strongest candidates for a Fauve sculpture. When we look at the Fauve figure paintings of Kees Van Dongen, Manguin, Marquet, Derain, Vlaminck, Puy, and Rouault, it is apparent that these artists, in Matisse’s terms, have dispensed with “acquired means,” and that they have returned to what Robert Goldwater calls “a naked simplicity.”15 Centuries of refining such classical poses of the nude as that of the odalisque were irreverently disregarded by Van Dongen in his Anita, and Matisse in his 1907 sculpture, Reclining Nude, whose history goes back beyond the Blue Nude to the Joie de Vivre, and Luxe, Calme et Volupte paintings. Foreshortening, informality and angularity of pose, absence of tasteful decorative accessories, and the blatant immediacy with which the affects of the figure are propelled towards the viewer are Fauve characteristics. Comparing Matisse’s Reclining Nude with Albert Boucher’s Repose shows the diversity of approach within the unity of their shared admiration for the odalisque. Boucher, who won the grand prize for sculpture in the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, continues the 19th-century taste for period props as the physical and historic support for his model, whose svelte proportions and lithe coordination were indispensable to the sculpture to begin with. As with Ingres’ classical treatment of the theme, Boucher carefully arranged the limbs so that there was a continuous graceful contour from head to toe, which avoided drawing attention to the subject’s bone structure. The averting of the head and closed eyes of the model was Boucher’s tact in allowing us to inspect the woman’s nudity without uneasiness. Matisse set his model on a rough slab, gave her almost masculine proportions (close to those of a Green Bay Packer halfback), refused to align her body along a straight axis, and slung the left leg over the right, thereby throwing the hipbones into relief. He made the figure seem all elbows, knees and shoulders. From his paintings that included the Reclining Nude, it is apparent that side and three-quarter views were his preferred viewing angles, neither of which flatters the woman, but both of which show the design to best advantage.16

In 1906, Matisse made a Reclining Figure in a Chemise, possibly derived from ancient sculpture, such as the Tenagra figurines in the Louvre, in which the odalisque pose is more classical and the clothing partly masks the weight-bearing right arm. In the Reclining Nude, there is an uncompromising insistence upon the load and support functions of the limbs. Two years after he made this sculpture he told his students, “The joints, like wrists, knees and elbows must show that they can support the limbs, especially when the limbs are supporting the body. And in cases of poses resting upon a special limb, arm or leg, the joint is better when exaggerated than when under-expressed.”17 Similar sentiments were tacitly shared by Fauve figure painters (the paintings by Derain and Vlaminck of the Dancer from the ”Dead Rat”), which reminds us that the Fauve figure style was antagonistic to conventional taste, but presupposed an almost academic understanding of bodily structure and movement and the need for their manifestation to some degree.

Both in his small sculpture of a Woman Leaning on Her Hands, of 1905, and its reappearance in painting, Matisse emphasized the means of the subject’s own support, while dispensing with a modeled base. In the painting, Still Life with Geranium Plant and Fruit, in the Art Institute of Chicago, which includes this sculpture, the arms are stressed by dark lines which underscore their thrust against the ground.18 These marks, rather than the undifferentiated face, were what Matisse felt were most expressive. When the salon sculptor Becquet wanted to pose his odalisque so that the upper part of the torso was raised, he added the prop of an urn on its side from which issued water and the inevitable title, La Source. The girl’s left hand was so arranged that she seems hardly to weigh upon the supporting urn. Matisse used a bolster to shore up one of his later odalisques and made no bones about where the weight was taken. There was no definition of the model’s hand so that we are not asked to serialize our reading of the whole sculpture.

In the 1920s Matisse returned in sculpture to the old problem of the odalisque in a series of three Reclining Nudes. He eliminated the forward bend of the upper torso, used in 1907, and generally totalized the figures with fewer means, sacrificing horizontal anatomical divisions for long passages in the torso that gave it greater sweep. These are not examples of stylization taking over, but rather modalities and continued search for the “simplest means” by which to express himself. Keeping faith with his temperament, he avoided “strange representations” and freshly attacked old problems.


Unlike Degas, both Matisse and Maillol had a relatively simple, basic repertory of quiet postures for their models: standing, seated and reclining. Over the years the pose which underwent the greatest transformation in Matisse’s sculpture was not the odalisque but that of the seated or crouching figure. It began in 1903 with the Écorché, and then in 1904 with the Seated Nude with Arms Over Her Head. The motif recalls paintings of seated women arranging their hair. In the sculpture, Matisse shows a simple esthetic act which is entirely remote from Jules Franceschi’s virtuoso performance of transforming Fortune’s hair into a cornucopia of coins and suspending the goddess and her attributes on a marble cloud. Matisse showed no interest, as did Franceschi, Rodin (occasionally) and many others, in seeming to liberate the human form from gravity, the pedestal and reality. He favored the model’s solid anchorage to the base and atelier. His women do not strike us as being engaged in purely hygienic functions of the toilette or performing as strenuously as Degas’ modeled bathers. Degas scorned the decorous pose and would show a model towelling her neck in a foreshortened view so that the top of her head thrusts in our direction. Degas was more complete and radical than Matisse in departing from postural conventions such as the “beauty pose,” because of his compulsion to study what he felt was the truth of the body’s movements that had become habitual and were acquired out side of art. Even if Matisse had access to Degas’ private sculpture studio before 1910, for which there is no evidence, their difference in touch, temperament and contrary ideas about movement in sculpture rule out questions of influence. Today Degas seems closer to Maillol only in the pursuit of firm, clear volumes.

Matisse knew and was friendly with Maillol and, in fact, helped him with the casting of the enlarged Mediterranean in 1905. He resented the rumor that Maillol had led him to sculpture, and Matisse pointed out that he had begun modeling before the two had met:

Maillol’s sculpture and my work in that line have nothing in common. We never speak on the subject, for we couldn’t understand one another. Maillol, like the ancient masters, proceeds by volume; I am concerned with arabesque like the Renaissance artists. Maillol did not like risks and I was drawn to them. He did not like adventure.19

The confrontation of Matisse’s seated figure of Olga, made in 1908, with Maillol’s Mediterranean indicates a common aim of “purity, serenity and balance,” but how inadequate are these words to differentiate the two men. Maillol dreamed of sculptural surfaces that would be like sunlight falling on whitewashed walls.20 To Matisse the attainment of Maillol’s generalized, placid volumes would have been at the cost of expressiveness and have produced a series of emotionally neutral silhouettes. The Mediterranean has fewer surprises and surface events than Matisse’s form, and is more predictable from successive views and in terms of its intervals between the limbs, body and base. Olga has contours made complex and vigorous, both by the posture, perhaps a recollection of Michelangelo’s Night seen on his trip to Italy the year before, and the sculptor’s unwillingness to generalize his contours through the striking of an average curve to insure the untroubled swell of a thigh’s volume. (The greater risk-taking by Matisse is evident in the earlier venturesome small sculptures whose poses predict that of Olga, and even more strongly imply that he was reworking Maillol’s sculpture.)21 Both for reasons of taste and technical difficulty with anatomy, Maillol avoided complicating the poses of his models. Matisse probably found the distinct separation of the woman’s left and right sides into open and closed combinations uninteresting compositionally, and he easily handled the anatomical consequences of crossing Olga’s left elbow to her right knee. (He may also have savored the transformation of Michelangelo’s tormented pose into that of sophisticated modern woman. He had a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Night from the Medici Tombs in his Nice hotel room in 1928.)22 Unlike its predecessors, the sculpture of Olga Marson bears a portrait resemblance as can be verified by the painting of her in 1910.23 In the sculpture she has been given a greater alertness and vitality, qualities alien to Maillol’s phlegmatic types and his ideal of equanimity and anonymity.

What brings the two artists closer is a comparison of their sculptures with appropriate examples of salon and museum art, such as Delaplanche’s Eve After the Fall. (A small Maillol study of about 1902 seems like a deliberate rephrasing of Eve’s pose.)24 One of the issues to which some younger sculptors addressed themselves at the turn of the century was whether or not to continue the illusionistically treated base. Maillol particularly resented its use by Rodin in his Bather by the Sea.25 At about the same time, 1900, both discarded this convention for simple rectangular bases and were soon followed by Duchamp-Villon, Archipenko and others. While Maillol and Matisse may have felt the byplay between Eve and the serpent was trivial or too literary, both continued the general postural type used by Delaplanche, with the stipulation that the woman’s right arm play a more important structural role by bracing the figure against the base.

Unlike Matisse, Maillol chose models to fit his style, and even his preliminary studies for large works show a characteristic generosity of proportion. Matisse adjusted his way of working to different women, and part of his risk-taking, seen in Olga, was in unexpectedly arresting the stage of the model’s reformation when her arms were still rope-like, her proportions seemingly too meager at the shoulder or swollen in the calves. It was at this point that the form was adequate to his sensations. A proportion was no longer measured against the model, but rather the remainder of the sculpture. In 1939, Matisse commented on his drawings and paintings in a way which makes us think of sculptures such as that of Olga:

These forms are not always perfect, but they are always expressive. The emotive interest they inspire in me is not especially visible in the representation of their bodies, but often in the lines, or the specific volumes that . . . form its orchestration, its architecture. It is perhaps sublimated voluptuousness, that which is perhaps not perceived by everyone.26


The voluptuous instincts of Matisse seem to manifest themselves strongly in the great Decorative Figure of 1908. There is no coy evasion of the viewer by averting the model’s gaze, but, like Manet’s Olympia, the woman confidently displays her body for inspection. The swollen fullness of her buttocks takes on an arrogance. Her sensuousness comes from the serpentine pose and promising proportions. The box on which she sits recalls the studio; the prudent gesture of the left hand echoes that of a hundred paintings and statues of Venus. From antiquity to this century, who can count the number of seated women in sculpture? But how many were shown naked, in the round, and crossed their legs at the knees? (The crossed legs in ancient reliefs meant protection against childbirth, or were attributes of prostitutes.) In the early 1870s Dalou modeled a naked young girl, seated in a chair, legs crossed and still wearing shoes, but this was a study for the clothed final version of The Reader. (This study is in the Paris Petit Palais.) In 1907 Matisse had used the pose in his painting, The Hairdresser.

Gérôme’s Tenagra, a salon sensation of the early 1890s when Matisse was a student and which went to the old Luxemburg Museum, sits erect, staring straight ahead and with knees firmly together like the draped or half-nude Tenagra Aphrodites in the Louvre. All were to see that Gérôme had surpassed Hellenistic artists in his mastery of the body. To augment the fleshiness of his marble, Gérôme tinted it. Matisse harbored no Pygmalion dream, and would not think of employing the finest Italian marble cutters to be surrogates for his hand. He honored the example of ancient artists in reinterpreting classical postures and by respecting the comprehensive meaning of certain gestures, but fulfilled his own ethical self-demands by evolving a personal equivalent for the external appearance of the body which compromised its identity as flesh. Perhaps even more than in his great painting of Carmelina, five years earlier, Matisse brought to the Decorative Figure a celebration of qualities rather than measurements, of recreation rather than reproduction, while still convincing us of the articulation, firmness and strength of the body’s internal armature. Unlike Gérôme, he gave us also a woman of strong personality. Gérôme could challenge criticism of his craftsmanship with proof from his calipers. Matisse modeled for those who recognized esthetic intuition and feeling as the arbiters of proportion and contour.

The Decorative Figure presents a strong argument for Matisse’s best sculptures, successfully rivalling many of his best paintings. The figure of Carmelina is beautifully fitted into the painting’s composition, like the keystone into an arch. Just as admirable is the composition, the psychological and physical self-sufficiency of the Decorative Figure. Sophisticated foreshortening of the legs allows both feet to touch the ground (which eliminates a potentially troublesome space below the left foot if it had been kept in the air, and securely anchors the composition). The right arm acts like a cathedral buttress, and the artist played against the potentially stabile shape of the box by situating the woman to one side of it. So strong are the contours from the front and back, that the sculpture’s relocation in such paintings as the Red Studio does not improve, but rather diminishes its power. More than the Carmelina, the Decorative Figure reveals Matisse’s gift of imparting spirit to his women, which helps to explain her emancipated posture for sculpture.

Proof that Matisse’s sculptures were not simply therapeutic diversions or outlets for gross motor energy is offered by The Serpentine, posturally sister to the Decorative Figure. The artist set himself this problem: How does one make the model’s movement intelligible from any angle? His answer, “I thinned and composed the forms so that the movement would be completely intelligible from all points of view.”27 The Serpentine’s pose has been traced by others back to antiquity through a succession of male figures, starting with the Hermes of Praxiteles. But Matisse could have seen, in the Louvre, Hellenistic figurines of women partially or fully draped, not only in the pose of leaning on a vertical support, but, unlike the male prototypes suggested, having their legs crossed.28 The Serpentine’s pose was also another academie, which, for example, Rodin had drawn from a male art-school model while a young student in the 1850s. Matisse thus took (either) an academic exercise or classical posture and gave it new life because of the possibilities he felt were unexplored for working in the round.

It has also been suggested that Matisse might have been influenced by Bourdelle’s earlier figure titled Fruit. If there is a similarity in pose between the two (that of Matisse’s figure is more complex in terms of the twisting of the body), it may have been because both saw ancient sculpture as a source. Fred Licht tells us flatly that Bourdelle was “as drastic in his manipulation of proportions as Matisse.”29 Neither in the arms, torso nor thighs is Fruit as contracted in proportion as those of The Serpentine. Bourdelle was frankly modernizing an ancient idea without the involvement in abstract problems that interested Matisse. The former pupil was far more daring in trimming down his originally plump model to its bird-like proportions. The metaphor is suggested by Matisse’s own statement to his students about the time of this sculpture: “When the model has slender legs they must show by their strength of construction that they can support the body . . . The neck must be heavy enough to support the head. . . .”30 Essential to Matisse was the making explicit of the strength of construction in the Serpentine, and while he may have shared this view with Bourdelle, the latter did not make this as apparent in Fruit. Matisse was not carried away with abstracting from the figure, and ideas of accuracy and plausibility arrested the knife as much as intelligibility of contours. It is as if The Serpentine had been a teaching demonstration for his students, certain of whom were privileged to work during the afternoon in the same studio where Matisse modeled his sculptures. Before 1915, Matisse was to see how Archipenko, Boccioni, Lipchitz and Brancusi were to solve the problem he had posed by literally opening up the figure’s mass. This was impossible for Matisse to emulate because of strong fidelity to anatomy and the figural convention of closed volumes. Commitment to anatomical credibility and tradition on his own terms separated Matisse from the revolutionaries and explains why he reworked the theme of the birth of Venus more than twenty years after The Sepentine.

Between these last-named sculptures there intervene variants on the seated pose which account for his unclassical treatment of the Venus Seated on a Shell, of 1930 and 1932. One of these is his adaptation (later in sculpture than in painting) of the arms folded above the head from the vertical beauty pose to that of the seated figure. This takes place with his large Seated Nude, on which he worked between 1922 and 1925. Coincident with a series of paintings of Nice interiors, the Seated Nude suggests Matisse’s desire to recapture the strong sculptural massiveness of the human figure found in his earlier work. This was not to mean sacrifice of informality of pose and immediacy of compositional effect. In many ways the sculpture is more satisfying than the paintings and prints of the period. The sculpture has a more closely knit and achieved unification of parts (less indebted to the model) than the figures in the drawings and paintings. Matisse employed his most pervasive and constructive use of the knife up to this time in this figure, and the resulting hard facets give an explicitness of contours, directions and rhythm of mass not matched in the painted versions of the same pose in the Chester Dale and Brody collections.31 His use of the knife won Matisse an intensity and emphasis of expression which restored a masculine strength to his style, largely absent since the somber war-period paintings.

Matisse commented, “Drawing is like an expressive gesture, but it has the advantage of permanency. A drawing is a sculpture, but it has the advantage that it can be viewed closely enough for one to detect suggestions of form that must be more definitely expressed in a sculpture, which must carry from a distance.”32 Having made the Seated Figure so that it does carry effectively from a distance, we can see that by comparison with the even larger versions in other media, the body’s contours and intervals made by the raised arms are more studied or decided. There seems to have been a greater extension of Matisse’s sensibility and critical sense in such problems as maintaining the credibility and beauty of the pose in space. Despite what appears to be the imposition of an arbitrary design upon the body’s surface, the sculptor sustained the impression of the body’s internal flexibility and rich construction. The work holds up and carries, even in plaster, because the body’s center of gravity is correctly placed and the hooking action of the left foot (more accentuated than in paintings) allows the cantilevering of the largest mass outward and upward into space. Matisse had earlier enjoined his students, “. . . assume the pose of the models yourself; where the strain comes is the key to your movement.”33 Thus the viewer is treated to the tandem experience of the artist’s knowledgeability of bodily mechanics and the controlled chance of his knife’s editorializing.

Not content with reinstating the solidity and greater object character of the body, the paintings of the same subject severely taxed Matisse’s sensibility to synthesize sculptural form and flat decorative patterns. Reflecting this synthesis was the next sculpture, Nude in an Arm Chair, of 1925, which replaces the earlier hassock with a larger piece of furniture and drapery which inhibits the overall contour’s expressiveness. The modeled torso is anatomically impossible in its length and contortion, but as with Michelangelo’s treatment of feminine anatomy within the context of the work, it seems not only natural but essential.


The final transformation and compacting of the seated posture in a sculpture comes in the two versions of Venus Seated on a Shell. One source for these sculptures may have been a small Hellenistic terra-cotta in the Louvre of Venus Crouching on a Shell, with her arms raised as if she were looking into a mirror, now lost.34 Matisse’s version violates the classical requirements for showing the goddess on the shell, first by having her seated, and second by placing her arms over her head. (This was a pose associated with a reclining or standing Venus. ) Matisse reused the Doidalses or crouching posture of the legs (named after the ancient Greek sculptor who supposedly originated it) that he himself had used in a reworking of the Rhodian Crouching Venus some years before.35 While omitting the shell’s ribbing, Matisse preserved its indentation, which prevents confusing the base with a Parisian floor tub.

Bourdelle’s Birth of Venus, made in 1928, may have interceded between Matisse and the Hellenistic sculpture. Bourdelle shows Venus as sitting and giving a benedictional gesture, yet he is more faithful to the Tenagra terra-cotta by drawing the shell up and behind the goddess, and restoring the missing figure of Eros. A formal symmetry is also imposed on the original composition. Matisse’s sculptures were probably a case of the former pupil challenging the teacher as to the essentials of form and the “great planes.” Expendable for Matisse were such things as certain props, the breasts of Venus in the earlier version, and her face in the later one. Compared with his paintings and drawings of the late twenties and early thirties, with their exotic backgrounds and male-free harem situations, the Venus sculptures continue the surprising: austerity of conception and tough-minded execution of the large Seated Figure, with no concessions to the subject’s accretions of sentiment and adulation. Presupposing familiarity with the subject, as far as identification was concerned, may have freed Matisse for its reinterpretation. The suggestive erectness and shaping of the torso and arms may have been his unconsciously evolved sexual attribute of Venus. That he was aware of analogies between different parts of the male and female body can be shown, and will be discussed in the next article, which treats the partial figure and portraits.


To someone who had never before seen Matisse’s sculpture, his last work, Standing Nude, of 1950, would at first appear to be the issue of aged and uncertain hands. Seen against his previous sculptures, the study from a model named Katia epitomizes Matisse’s conservatism, his continuing to dare the obvious and put new wine in old amphoras. This meant the reworking of past problems; the restatement of familiar analogies (platitudes); the renewing of old rivalries with fellow modelers. The problem was the animating of a static symmetrical pose whose affinity was not with a machine but with an ancient urn, such as had been previously interpreted in many Rodin drawings and by Bourdelle.36 (There are even cracks caused by the clay’s drying in the same general area of the torso in the two sculptures.) When held and carefully looked at, the seemingly negligent surface treatment of the Standing Nude becomes one that is intricately but unexplainably articulated, avoiding descriptiveness or rationalization of the body. He wanted us to feel the demands of volume and mass. For the “tired mental worker” all is revelation, no concealment of meaning or the means of remaking the body; it is as if he were saying: This is how the torso fits into the pelvis, like an amphora into its stand; if there are no knees and feet, elbows and hands are dispensable; a rib cage contour is worth sacrificing for a continuous undulating silhouette; within its concave contours the stretched torso has its reverse shape, and so on. The surface discloses no insistence upon tangible method, only intuition and feeling that are parents to the touch. There is a curious refusal of stylistic development, a resistance to habits of the hand. Matisse still enacted the dream, shared with Maillol, of making sculpture as if for the first time.

The late colored cutouts, which he compared to direct carving in sculpture, saved Matisse time, and opened new ways in color of “distilling forms” within the framework of his style.37 The modeling of Katia lastly served the old artist as an outlet through his hands, both forgetting and unforgetting a lifetime’s experience, for achieving comprehensive meaning in the human figure by fullness of actual mass and expressive contours. For Matisse the body was always a joyous, provocative mystery that resisted mastery.


The freedom of surface handling which Matisse’s figures received is, generally speaking, not historically new and is related to the tradition of the bozzetto, the sculptural sketch, that derives from the late 15th century and such artists as Verrocchio, Michelangelo, Giambologna and Bernini.38 Since the Renaissance, bozzetti (sometimes large in scale) have been admired for their own special properties, for displaying the artist at his most intimate and complete. (Assistants often helped to execute part or all of the enlarged final works.) Carpeaux’s bozzetti for his finished portraits and figures sample the strength of this old tradition in the last century. With Rodin the distinctiveness of the bozzetto begins to break down. Rodin did countless works with a liberalized surface treatment, but we find that in many of his life-size sculptures, such as the Age of Bronze, John the Baptist, The Thinker, and the Burghers of Calais, the facture is not as broad or discernible, not as loosely modeled as in their preliminary studies. His private, small and medium-scale works of figures and heads made from anonymous models, and particularly the monument to Balzac, display the variety and inventiveness of his touch most dramatically, and were to have a considerable influence not just on reviving public taste for qualities of the sketch, but on younger artists redefining the nature of sculpture. As with the partial figure, Rodin may have slowly come to recognize and prize the validity and self-sufficiency of his sketches. The emancipation of touch from the convention of the bozzetto or project for a larger or finished sculpture to its being the fabric of a final work, owes much to Medardo Rosso as well. What separates Matisse from the bozzetto tradition, beginning with the Serf, was that he did not make sculptures for commissions or as a prelude to larger, more finished forms; and unlike Rosso, he was not matching his modeling to observed effects of light on moving figures. He wanted the quality of arbitrary esthetic construction comparable to Cézanne’s reworking of motifs from nature. He stands in the same relation to Rodin and Rosso as did Cézanne to the Impressionists. With Matisse the exposed touch, the preservation of all vestiges of spontaneity and decision, feeling and freedom as a complete esthetic work became early and consistently, thereafter essential, to his concept of finished sculpture on any scale.

Albert Elsen



1. Raymond Escholier, Matisse Ce Vivant, 1956, p. 166.
I would like to express my gratitude to my Stanford colleagues, Professors Isabelle Raubitschek, Lorenz Eitner and Gerald Ackerman for their help in tracking down certain sources and providing me with answers to vexing questions in the writing of this article.
I regret the omission of Sir Herbert Read’s name in the first article where I referred to the absence of interest among historians in the sculpture of Matisse. Sir Herbert wrote two essays on the sculpture and included it in his Concise History of Modern Sculpture.

2. Escholier, p. 163.

3. Alfred Barr, Matisse, His Art and His Public, 1951, p. 122.

4. Barr, 551.

5. Ibid.

6. The most complete reproduction of Duchamp-Villon’s sculpture is to be found in G. H. Hamilton and W. Agee’s Raymond Duchamp-Villon, 1967. The text is interesting and informative, but unconvincing with respect to Duchamp-Villon’s relation to Cubism.

7. Fred Licht, Sculpture 19th and 20th Centuries, 1967, pp. 25, 27. I have reviewed this book in The Burlington Magazine, April 1968. To prove his point about the “homelessness of modern sculpture,” Licht poses what he feels is an unanswerable question: “Where, for instance, does [Canova’s] Paolina Borghese belong?” It would appear that this dedicated baroque scholar had never visited the Borghese palace in Rome.

8. Barr, p. 343. (Still Life in Venetian Red, Moscow, Museum of Western Art. )

9. Escholier, 146.

10. Barr, 122.

11. Barr reproduces on pages 295 and 303 a drawing and painting relatable to the problems posed in the Madeleine sculptures.

12. Barr, 123.

13. Lectures on modern art at Columbia University, 1950. For examples in Matisse’s drawing and prints see Barr, p. 324–325.

14. This painting is in the St. Tropez Museum of the Annunciation and is reproduced in color in Umbra Apollonio’s Fauves and Cubists, 1959, p. 15.

15. Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art, 1967, p. 99. (An excellent analysis of Fauve figures. )

16. Barr, p. 342 (Sculpture and Persian Vase, 1908, Oslo National Gallery) and p. 348 (Goldfish, 1909 or 1910, Copenhagen Statens Museum for Kunst).

17. Barr, 551.

18. Jean Leymarie, Herbert Read, William S. Lieberman, Henri Matisse, 1966, p. 52.

19. Escholier, 163–164. Maillol’s sculptural style comes out of his Nabi-inspired textile designs and drawings rather than an initial and conscious imitation of ancient sculpture.

20. Judith Cladel, Maillol, Sa Vie, Ses Idées, Son Oeuvre, 1937, p. 151.

21. Catalogue of Forty Nine Bronzes by Matisse, Sotheby’s, July 7, 1960, plates 22, 23.

22. Barr, p. 27.

23. Barr, p. 353.

24. I have not found this work reproduced, but was given a photograph of it by Dina Vierny.

25. Henry Frère, Conversations Avec Maillol, 1956, p. 173. Maillol was critical of the size of the marble block from which Rodin cut his figure and the lack of decorative sense he displayed.

26. Escholier, p. 146.

27. Barr, 139. Mr. Barr has a long and interesting discussion of this work and its reception. He brings out that Matisse worked from a photograph of a model.

28. For reproductions of many of these figurines, see Mollard-Besques, Catalogue Raisonné des Figurines et Reliefs en Terre-Cuite Grecs et Romains, v. 11, 1963.

29. Licht, p. 177.

30. Barr, 551.

31. Barr, p. 440 and Leymarie, Read, Lieberman, p. 91.

32. Barr, p. 551.

33. Barr, p. 550.

34. My special thanks to Lorenz Eitner for remembering this work.

35. See the Sotheby’s catalog, plate 36.

36. Pierre Descargues, Bourdelle, 1954, p. 77. This was also one of Bourdelle’s last sculptures of the nude.

37. Henri Matisse, Jazz, 1947.

38. Irving Lavin, “Bozzetti and Modelli,” Stil und Uberlieferung in der Kunst des Abendlandes, v. 3, 1960, p. 100.