PRINT September 1972

Matisse Drawings and Sculpture

. . . when the issue is one of knowing something, the other senses, by a certain resemblance, take to themselves the function of seeing—a function in which the eyes have priority.
Confessions of St. Augustine


MATISSE’S OFTEN QUOTED REMARK that he wanted his art to be “like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue”1 is really the least appropriate characterization of one’s reaction to his work. Few artists have done more to discredit the idea o f esthetic perception as something passive and compliant than Matisse—for all his hedonism and easily grasped attractiveness. The degree to which his art insists on a demanding apperceptive reaction is itself almost a guideline to its quality. And yet, the quotation from “Notes of a Painter” is a reminder that for Matisse the striving after the harmonious placed a corresponding weight on what he himself called the “decorative.” It is no longer necessary to defend Matisse against charges of being a “mere” decorator; but worth recalling is what Clement Greenberg wrote in 1952: the irony of such charges “lies in the fact that pure decoration is the department in which he has failed most.”2 The reason for this lies in the relationship of the “decorative”—insofar as it expresses Matisse’s understanding of the necessary subsuming of specific naturalistic motifs to the demand of painting—and the “symbolic,” the creation of specific “occasional” symbols for this “decorative” purpose.

While the concept of decoration might imply an art of generalization, and, while Matisse’s radical simplifications do involve the creation of generalized forms, his art is better the further it is from generalization in principle, and the more closely it follows the demands of specific occasions. This is not the same as saying that Matisse’s art was weakened as it diverged from its sources. Rather, the more it located itself in the creation of pictorial devices determined by (and produced for) specific occasions, the stronger it became. Although specific nature is generalized, no fixed system of generalization must be erected: this is the rule Matisse most often followed. Hence, his other famous dictum, "L’exactitude n’est pas la vérité,” asserts that the painter’s task is to discover common qualities linking local differences of form. This did not, however, sanction the creation of any kind of utilitarian vocabulary of symbols. We find these in his pure decorations, but not in the majority of his paintings—although these often assimilated decorative devices.

Matisse’s refusal to “play with symbols which never change” (as he himself put it) is particularly apparent in his drawings. They provide revealing insights into how the “occasional” pictorial symbols were created—especially in those broadly graphic works which fused the activity of drawing with that of painting, by magnification of scale, by using a canvas support, or in the monochromatic gouaches découpées. These large-scale “drawings” also have interesting relationships with the sculpture that are most evident in the physicality of the découpées.

Before treating the drawings as substantiating other work let us consider what kinds of drawings Matisse made. A small group of watercolors, dating mainly from 1904–6, are usefully mentioned first since they are almost unique in using color within the context of drawing. The rarity of Matisse watercolors can be explained by their combining aspects of drawing and of painting. His consciousness of the separateness of each medium led him to avoid in drawing anything that might predetermine what was of primary importance in his paintings, color. He often talked of the crucial differences scale imposed on relationships, and how color had to grow in terms of a specific support. Color, certainly, could not be transposed. Matisse’s first use of watercolor in 1904 was stimulated (as Victor Carlson points out)3 by the influence of Cross and Signac, with whom he spent that summer in St. Tropez. The Collioure watercolors of the following year are best considered in terms of this relationship. Their precise and discrete brushmarks laid over thin transparent washes make them analogous to a Neo-Impressionist technique of application. His interpretation and expansion of Neo-Impressionist color into broad but exact lines is evidence of the remarkably personalized use Matisse made of the more rigid earlier style. His indebtedness to Neo-lmpressionism is far more than that of color. The important exactness of line also comes from this same period.4

Coincident with the early watercolors are another group of unique works, the linoleum cuts first exhibited in March, 1906. While undoubtedly stimulated by Gauguin’s woodcuts, these capitalize on the same combination of line and touch that characterizes the watercolors, though with a more decorative effect. At this germinal stage in Matisse’s development we see an unusually high degree of cross reference among different media. The linoleum cuts were first conceived as brush and ink drawings. The Standing Nude Drying Herself, though never translated into a linoleum cut, is very typical of these drawings. Matisse’s first lithographs, spontaneous and virtuoso linear works, date from early-1906 as do his earliest drawings which use line alone, without associated shading or hatching, to summarize form into fluid and continuous contours. It is tempting to view the sculpture, Standing Nude of 1906, as part of Matisse’s fast developing linearity that would lead to the Decorative Figure of 1908 and reach an early apogee in the Serpentine. And yet, as early as 1901, the simplified first Madeleine had little that diverted attention from its svelte contours.

Other than the watercolors, the remaining categories of Matisse’s drawings are all monochromatic. For the sake of clarity they may be listed as follows: line drawings, mostly in pen and ink, either the abbreviated kind for which Matisse is probably best known, or more elaborate line works such as those dating from the midthirties; other pen and ink drawings employing pronounced variations of line thickness or hatching; brush drawings, including vigorous Fauve work; “optical” drawings, and such “shorthand” series as the late Acrobats; a group of pencil drawings in fairly “finished” states, such as the portrait heads of 1912–16 and the Cinquante Dessins sheets of 1918–20; charcoal drawings with estampe or tone work; and finally the monochromatic gouaches découpées.

Certain line drawings, charcoal drawings, and découpées have an interesting bearing on the sculpture. First, however, it is necessary to state how the generalization and abstractness of any work are seen as independent and often conflicting qualities because the sculpture, however stylized it became, was ineluctably tied to the “reality” of its subjects more than the work in two dimensions. This statement will be qualified in some critical respects, but no sculptures pose any real difficulty in deciphering what they represent. The degree of Matisse’s departure from “reality” of its subjects more than the work in with the abstractness of his work—with his emphasizing purely esthetic relationships within the subject matter. This could, of course, be as easily accomplished close to the subject as far from it. Indeed, on one notable occasion, the more Matisse departed from his source the more he surrendered a certain degree of esthetic quality. I refer to the Back series. Back IV is by no means an inconsiderable work, but its enforced stability and self-conscious monumentality make it less than the best of these sculptures. The figure as such was unimportant to Matisse except for its potential abstractness, and yet this abstractness had to be appropriate to the situation and not an abstraction in principle. “You must forget all your theories, all your ideas, before the subject,” Matisse is reported as saying. This confirms the feeling of a localized internal correctness we get from the best of his work. Like all great art, it was from the specificity of its abstractness that quality emerged.

The simplification in the drawings highlights this issue perhaps more than in the paintings or the sculpture. Some drawings, because they are so abbreviated, put extreme pressure on the need for absolute authority and conviction of expression. Wishing to create symbols that were the contained inscapes of the objects he viewed, Matisse risked decoration the more ambitious his simplifications became, but only approached it when he began too consciously “designing” the sheet he drew on. When decorative in this way he often seems to generalize forms to fit them patly to the shape of the ground. For me, the celebrated Tree drawings of 1951–52 suffer from this tendency; whereas the Acrobats of the same period—far more extreme in their simplifications—have an amazing power because they are always very particular. The fineness of those drawings that physically grew in their composition, with extra sheets added to let the subject reach its “natural” size, confirms that Matisse was at his best as a draftsman when he simply bore down on the motif and let the design take care of itself. This is not to say that his drawings deny the dimensions of their support. He once talked of moving his hand about before starting to draw so as to establish the relationship between subject and paper size. And yet some drawings like the Acrobats and, especially, the découpées, gain their strength by largely ignoring any implication of rectilinear enclosure. These, however, are exceptional in that they relate as much to Matisse’s sculpture as to his painting. While they accept the condition of flatness integral to the paintings, they explore the essentially sculptural concept of how the edges of a contained form protrude into their surrounding and limitless space.

A very beautiful and highly finished pencil drawing of c. 1919, Reclining Model, shows how carefully compositional the drawings could become without being plotted. We will see later the importance of the reclining pose to Matisse’s sculpture. Here, it is evident that the choice of such a pose—by minimizing the issue of gravity effects on the figure and by reducing the psychological impact of the head—helped him to present the figure as a tipped-up, flattened motif, spread across the sheet to exactly describe its boundaries. Matisse produced his most overtly independent compositional works in pencil, like this one, and in pen and ink, reserving the broader media of brush and charcoal for “contained” motifs which have a more separate existence to the sheet on which they are placed. There are exceptions, of course, but when Matisse did use these media for compositional purposes he was more likely to approximate the effects of his painting. Good examples are the “optical” brush drawing, Still Life with Pineapple of 1948, which has even more intensity of “color” than the compositionally similar painting, The Pineapple, 5 of the same year (and which beautifully illustrates Matisse’s remark about “modelling the light of my white paper”), and the charcoal and estampe, Reclining Model with Flowered Robe of c. 1923–24, which is easily comparable in kind (and certainly in quality) to Matisse’s painting in this period.

The charcoal and estampe drawings have an affinity with the painterly and sculptural aspects of Matisse’s oeuvre. The sculptural implications are evident in the emphatically tonal nature of this medium, and can be seen in the early Standing Nude Model of c. 1900. A more individual sculptural feeling appears in the drawing, Seated Dancer of 1939, a study for the painting, La France.6 The drawing seems stronger, however, largely from the way the charcoal tone-work centralizes and internalizes the figure. It is the containment and concentration of the image which is so important. While the separateness of tone and contour makes this drawing analogous to some of Matisse’s paintings (the tone functioning here as a kind of “color” wash), its basically internalized feel (as well as its weightedness) point in an altogether different direction. An even more advanced charcoal drawing, Reclining Nude Seen from the Back of 1938, shows this too. This image, however, pushing itself to the limits of its sheet in a dramatic, frenzied way, reminds us of the few other instances when Matisse depicted figures in movement. Such an effect was rarely available to the controlled and calm paintings. A few sculptures have something analogous—the looser order in his early work—but the late free line drawings and many of the monochromatic gouaches decoupees epitomize this.

A 1952 Acrobat, created with only nine or ten brushmarks, is at once in strenuous motion and remarkably final in its pose. The same applies to the découpée, Blue Dancer, which is even more energetic, as well as being directional in movement. Energy is compressed within the image. Its contours cut into the space around it without, however, budging it from its fixed location. In the large découpée, Acrobats (more than 80 inches in each direction), Matisse is in superb control of the flat cut shapes he modulates. The partially erased charcoal drawing reveals what changes in position he made. The right-hand figure is composed on five sheets, against which is abutted the head of the second, separately created, figure. Matisse bares the physicality of the work and the directness of its facture, and taking a transient movement, he renders it monumental. “Drawing,” he once said, “is like an expressive gesture, but it has the advantage of permanency.” How he continued is of special interest in this context: “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 much more definitely expressed in sculpture which must carry from a distance.” With this in mind, we turn to Matisse’s sculptures.


The development of pictorialism in modern sculpture, and its battle against literalist sensibilities, are familiar themes in critical writing that need little explanation. To evaluate Matisse as a modern sculptor requires a consciousness of this. development; consequently, some general points should be made.7 The new sculptural style that emerged from Cubism is essentially a syntactical art, not simply of part-to-part relationships, but more exactly, a style where relationships count. Sculpture, by nature more literal than painting because it is three-dimensional, needed to transfer attention from its object character, and often from parts as such to relationships or juxtapositions so as to resist being seen merely as a literal thing. Monolithic forms have proven largely irreconcilable to this art—for instead of modulating space, they occupy it. The open Constructionist and Cubist-based style has sought “to render substance entirely optical, and form . . . as an integral part of ambient space.” Texture, weight, and more often than not, circumscribed volume, have been kept out of this art.

Matisse resisted the influence of Cubism in his sculpture, except in at least one important set of works.8 His sculptural style is monolithic, weighty, and textural, which can cause problems for the viewer tuned to modernist themes. Matisse’s painting, unlike Cubism, is non sculptural and instead of looking to his paintings for clues, we need to recognize Matisse’s fine under standing of the special conditions of the media with which he worked. His painting style so exactly located itself around the conditions of painting that it couldn’t have been transposed elsewhere even if Matisse had so desired. At least, when it was to some extent transposed it required all but the invention of a new medium to accommodate it: in the découpées which were neither painting nor sculpture though partaking of both to varying degrees.

Part of the difficulty of assessing Matisse’s sculpture is the problem of sculpture’s place in 20th-century art; it has proven more difficult an enterprise than painting both to make and to evaluate because it involves the place of tradition in modernist sculpture and its broad indebtedness to advanced painting. This consideration has obvious and important bearing on Matisse—as both an innovative painter and as a sculptor deeply conscious of the traditions of his art. It is, however, the very nonradicalism of the sculpture which has to be reckoned with. There are works that comfortably relate to the “advanced” issues of Matisse’s painting: the Serpentine, the Backs series, and the pairs of Tiaré and Venus in a Shell works, for example, which have qualities of sinuousness, simplification, or elegance that provoke direct comparison with forms in the painting. Most pieces, however, do separate themselves from the painting; their mode of ambition is very different and their relationship to the past is more evident. In many ways they seem to belong to the past, but I would argue that the qualities Matisse’s “traditionalism” permitted him and the way he revitalized traditional formats make the lesson of his work relevant to the issues that confront sculpture now.

We can’t argue with history because most of the best recent sculpture has been Cubist-based, or with the very fact that (unlike open Cubist work) monolithic sculpture can’t readily become abstract without being literal (even if we can regret that modernist sculpture has had to do without much of what made past sculpture great). We can, however, consider what is so special about Matisse’s work that continues to give it great power on its own terms and meaning on ours—and what prompted one young sculptor to state that “Matisse’s sculpture proper—not directly, but in terms of the thinking behind it, its detachment from problems of facture, imagery and object-presence—may come to be regarded a paramount influence on the most interesting sculpture being made today.”9

An obvious explanation for Matisse’s dual identity as a painter-sculptor is his link with the 19th-century artists Gericault, Daumier, Degas, and Renoir, all of whom were unsculptural in their painting and yet were modelers. The justification for their separate sculptural oeuvre is often the same as Matisse’s. They were “guarding for painting a quality that was especially visual,” and sculpture could be used “to draw off the formal solidity of art into its appropriate medium.”10 And yet, for all these artist s, Matisse included, the issues of their painting had more relevance to the sculpture than the latter quality being merely a catchall for the nonvisual. The 19th-century awareness of the special attributes of the medium in painting raised issues that, though unique to painting, suggested a parallel investigation in sculpture—both to draw out their fullest potentials, and to organize and order form in such a way as to be of help in the paintings. Of the new issues in painting, the following are also of relevance to sculpture: 1) the function of drawing—how the limits of shapes abut into surrounding space and how they relate to each other;11 2) the place of the volumetric—how the independent solidity of volumes in painting are modified by the picture plane, and how “sculptural” tonalities achieve purely pictorial viability; 3) the issue of handling itself—how the artist’s touch is inextricably bound up with his acknowledging the surfaceness of a work, and; 4) the artist’s awareness of the distance between himself and his subject—and his recognition that, in a special sense, distancing itself is the subject of his work.12 Treating these issues separately is useful but also misleading, for they do not appear as independent factors in any given work. Likewise, though I will treat them in turn for their implications in Matisse’s sculpture, this will mean an unavoidable distortion of the fuller impact of certain individual sculptures in favor of those aspects that illustrate specific points.13 However, the totality of each work, and of Matisse’s entire sculptural oeuvre, converge in the final, and most fundamental, of these issues. This is, in fact, far more .than a specific issue to itself. It is a matter of conception: of the function and effect of a modern work of art—the way in which it presents itself to us.

As Albert Elsen has pointed out,14 Matisse’s sculpture did help his paintings in the crucial years after his breakthrough with the Bonheur de Vivre. The painting, Blue Nude of 1907, has far more irregular a silhouette than his earlier work and compares so vividly in contour with the sculpture, Reclining Nude I, that it does seem very likely Matisse used sculpture to clarify his pictorial ideas. Likewise, the Decorative Figure of 1908 and the Serpentine of 1909 show more drastic liberties taken with the figure than in contemporary paintings. That Matisse based the Serpentine on a photograph, as he did the Two Negresses of the previous year (and as he was to do again for other sculptures), gives further credence to his statement that he turned deliberately to sculpture “for the purposes of organization, to put order into my feelings, and find a style to suit me. When I found it in sculpture, it helped me in my painting.” Choosing two-dimensional images as his sources and/or working from a restricted number of viewpoints when treating a sculpture suggest that Matisse’s sculptural ambitions were essentially pictorial. And to look at almost any work is to see that it was conceived, in a special sense, as a view of a thing—as a visual motif. The heavy pier oh which the Serpentine rests her elbow frees the legs of structural significance. This, and the equally assertive base of the work, somehow “frame” the motif so that its forms, freed from the whole issue of weight, become esthetic variables of an enclosed and finite space.

Matisse’s sculpture manifests this “containment” in many ways. The reciprocal frontalities of the Two Negresses have obvious relationships to painting, as do Matisse’s few relief works. It is interesting to note, however, that when he tried to imitate the shallow space of his paintings, as opposed to analogizing their more fundamental abstractness, it weakened his art. The only carving he made, The Dance of 1907, is frustrated by its closeness to the methods and space of painting. And the Back series, far from being the supreme works they are usually considered, suffer similarly. They are self-consciously major and monumental, and as such sacrifice much of the internalized private energy that helps to give the great sculptures their important esthetic distance. They present themselves too much; at least they do so in almost direct proportion to their simplification. In this respect, the later reliefs are usefully compared with the stylistically similar painting, the Chicago Bathers by a River, against which their quality is really tested. The many lounging and reclining figures deal far more confidently with the issue of pictorial containment. By choosing a pose on which weight has already had its effect, Matisse could deal esthetically with all of the forms without having to use props to channel off the weightedness. The three superb Reclining Nude pieces of 1907, 1927, and 1929 show in different ways how he both acknowledged weightedness—using it to assist in the compactness of total form—and yet benefited from the recumbancy of the figures (their “after-weightedness”) to justify the free, and almost abstract, organization of individual forms that comprise the compact whole.15 The later nudes, especially, are spread across the base plane in a way that makes one totally conscious of the abstractness of Matisse’s endeavor.

How this relates to drawing is evident. We have seen in Matisse’s own drawings that the “growth” of an image could become of primary importance, and that its specificity and immediacy as symbols were always in Matisse’s mind. Moreover, the pure visibility of contour, and Matisse’s awareness of how contour abutted surrounding space, was always crucial to the integral identity of an image. Likewise in the sculpture, the individual units—when freed so far as possible from a purely structural role—can be perceived as self-reflexive entities that combine to create not merely a figure but a rich abstract motif, experienced almost entirely in visual terms. Matisse’s precise consciousness of the limits of any shape, which lets us see his sculpture in this way, was part of the heritage of 19th-century painting on which he drew. It was essential to Cézanne, from whom Matisse derived so much. It was a special part of Degas’ art, too—and it is to Degas that we must look for the most striking parallel with Matisse’s clearest sculptural statement of the relationship between containment and silhouetted form. Degas’ The Tub of c. 1886 actually positions a reclining figure within what is, in effect, a circular picture plane. Matisse’s Venus on a Shell, though less dramatic—and less obvious too—has surely a similar motivation.

Making such connections is not to say Matisse’s sculpture should be evaluated as if it were painting. Rather, its independence from painting—though motivated by painting and relevant to its issues—lends it endurance. Indeed, discussing “drawing” in this work does seem anomalous in implying “draftsmanlike” qualities—whereas its “painterliness” of handling and undesigned feeling is what impresses us. Nevertheless, the issue of drawing is important. For Matisse, sculpture was like drawing in being an expressive gesture, though one which “must be much more definitely expressed.” While the handling of surfaces (the “painterliness”) is basic to the quality of the work, this was always directed to the creation of clearly defined volumes.

Matisse’s Jeannette heads of 1910–13 are among his greatest achievements and hold their own against any works of contemporary sculpture. To compare them, for example, with Brancusi’s contemporary heads is to see that Matisse was equally daring in his conception—if not more so. While Brancusi unified form, Matisse separated it. To so disturb that psychologically potent unit required a different and far more demanding confidence in the viability of the abstract than to stress its wholeness.16 Nowhere more than in the last three Jeannettes does Matisse convince us of the power of abstract volume as a vehicle for modern sculpture.

To see these works simply as a process of abstraction is to miss the point.17 Their subject is not process in the sense of towards (or away from) a given form, but the process of forming elements (and wholes) themselves. The five sculptures fall into two groups: the first two, baseless; and the last three, where Matisse’s three-part division of form (base, bust, head) is as essential to the whole as the deformations within the head itself. (Albert Elsen’s illustration of Jeannette I18 set upon a fabricated conical podium is evidence, however, that the relationship of head to support was in Matisse’s mind from the start .) By differentiating the head as a unit, Matisse was able to give more justification to his part-to-part juxtapositions of the individual elements that comprise the head itself. Here, he appears helped by the experience of Cubism opening up the forms and does it far more dramatically than Picasso did in his Woman’s Head of 1910, which seems in contrast inflected by detail. Picasso had to wait for collage to find a viable Cubist style in sculpture: one of juxtaposed planes. Matisse, as an established modeler, more readily accepts the implications of what exaggerated tonal differences will do to form: simplify and separate it. While Picasso in his sculpture of 1910 is close to his painting, Matisse is not, as a glance at the Red Studio of 1911 reveals.

But there is one connection with painting. Albert Elsen finds a source for the drastic reshaping of the eyes in the Cézanne-like summaries of Matisse’s Self Portrait of 1906.19 I find this a valuable comparison. Matisse seems to be testing the purity of his painting and sculpture by pushing them in opposite directions from a common source. Matisse’s sculpture as well as his paintings are usefully viewed as deriving in principle from Cézanne’s innovations. He learned from Cézanne how volume sits against the surface of a painting and is modified by the character of the flat surface itself. By the time he began the Jeannette series, however, the sense of volume had all but disappeared from his painting, except from the inflections of contour. But Cézanne had also shown how volume emerges from the cumulative massing of touches of pigment, each realizing small planes in the chosen motif, and how simplified contour assisted not only the alliance of a form with the flatness of the painting but also its separateness. The aggregated lumps of matter that comprise the later Jeannette heads can be thought of as the extreme of Cézanne’s lesson. Individual pictorial units—discrete in shape—are put together to create volumes that meet the eye as visually felt. Tonality is made pictorial not by effacing it but by exaggerating it.

The Jeannette sculptures lead us to the issue of Matisse’s handling. Here again their painterly inspiration is evident. While Matisse worked through Rodin in his early years and, as a modeler, had no alternative but to do so, his touch is improvisatory, nonsystematic, and summary. Even in the “Rodinesque” Serf of 1900–03, he juxtaposed detailed passages of modeling with broad planes created by the knife. In the matter of touch Matisse shows himself detached from stylistic concerns. Yet in his touch he now seems both traditional and radical: traditional for holding onto modeling itself, for his links with the painter-modelers of the 19th century; radical for making surface a vital part of the sculptural medium, but in a way that refers to how painting makes surface pictorial. Abstractness of the volumes is contingent upon how the surfaces are handled. In Cubist-based sculpture, the surface of a work appears as a skin; and mass is most often narrowed down so that the work becomes a combination of sheer surfaces which together divide up the pictorial space. In these works, surfaces look illusionistic and reduce the visibility of the surfaces (planes) themselves. For Matisse, concerned as he was with volume, the issue was very different, however. Though reducing touch with volume in his paintings, he emphasized it in most of his sculptures, using the clay as if it were paint to affirm volume by means of its surface presence. To quote from another context, he “established surface—the surface, so to speak, of painting—as a medium of sculpture.”20 I don’t wish to exaggerate this side of Matisse’s art. Some of his ambitious sculptures, the Tiaré pieces especially, have the kind of “finish” that can’t be thought of as “painterly”; and we shouldn’t think of his sculpture as following any distinct program. Moreover, because of the primacy of volume, surface is not experienced as an independent quality. These works are by no means all surface, but surface is important as a way of giving visual immediacy to volume itself.


One important issue remains to be discussed, the character of presence in Matisse’s sculpture. I have referred to a kind of containment and internality of form, and to the abstractness and pictorial nature of Matisse’s intent. How, then, does this relate to the modernist tradition as a whole? As noted, of importance in the broadly Cubist style in sculpture, was its overcoming of the immediate existence of the sculptural object. The constructional mode itself shifted attention from the whole, as an object-presence, to the jointing of different material parts. Matisse, as a modeler, was ineluctably committed to the object-whole however much he stressed relationships. Nevertheless, he was able to keep the immediacy of the monolith and yet remove its presence as an object.

The immediacy of surface I noted is a clue to understanding this. Matisse saw the necessity of avoiding any blatant depiction of form as if under the skin of his figures. While most naturalistic sculpture has prided itself on an effect of internal forms pushing outwards to the surface (“exploding” the form), Matisse recognized that to imitate the surface of a figure as well as its masses was to risk compromising its surfaceness as sculpture—and, indeed, its mass as well. The surface—the only thing that meets the eye—would lose its tangibility and become a depiction of forms beneath it. This wasn’t an issue for earlier sculpture because the artists’ consciousness of the reality of their subjects was far more straightforward. For Matisse, his reaction to his subjects—his distance from them—was an integral part of the sculpture. If surface as well as form became illusionistic, the sculpture would lose its “stuffness,” its distance. In part the very unnaturalistic (painterly) look of the surfaces allows us to see the sculptures as “views.” Organic form but not organic substance seems to have been Matisse’s byword. It is not (to repeat) for “surfacequality” that this is an important issue. Rather, it is only by sacrificing an important feature of reality (surface verisimilitude)—that Matisse could force us to see the volumes as closer to his awareness of their (independent) reality: as part of a world different from the one he occupied.

Never more than in modern figurative sculpture has the issue of distance been so crucial. Realistic painting, far more than sculpture, had the means to make itself “unreal” built into its procedures, though it took Manet to. make this explicit: in what Michael Fried has called the “situational” character of his art.21 For sculpture, its closeness to the subject, and its object-presence, made this more difficult and it took a new conception of sculpture to carry it entirely into the fictive domain. Matisse’s awareness of distancing in his sculpture makes him for that art what Manet was for painting: the last to seek an equal to the great realistic art of the past. His methods forced him away from the reality in which it was based to acknowledge the essential separateness of what he made. Far from hindering the separateness of his work, its kind of alienated objectness assists it.22 The sculpture has all the closedness and singleness of an object (and benefits from it), but not its immediacy of presence.23 As an enforcedly esthetic thing it seems removed from us, and we “attend” to it in the same close way as we do his paintings—as a series of viewpoint s. We experience the volumes visually, and not through the materials that comprise them. And in this freedom from a merely physical justification for his art, Matisse refuses to partake of the effect of presence an object creates. Each sculpture affirms its own self-contained but separate existence—and the closeness of attention they demand gives to the work a vivid internalized energy with very few parallels in modern art.

John Elderfield



1. Statements by Matisse are taken from Alfred H. Barr, Matisse: His Art and His Public, New York, 1951 (to which I also refer for illustrations of the paintings mentioned here) and Albert E. Elsen, The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, New York, 1972. All drawings mentioned will be found illustrated in Victor I. Carlson’s catalogue, Matisse as a Draughtsman, Baltimore Museum of Art, 1971, and the sculptures in Elsen and in Alicia Legg’s catalogue, The Sculpture of Matisse, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1972.

2. Clement Greenberg, “Art Chronicle: 1952,” Art and Culture, Boslon, 1961.

3. Carlson, Matisse as a Draughtsman, p. 30.

4. I do not mean to exaggerate the importance of Neo-Impressionism here, since it hardly explains the essential sinuousness of line in Matisse’s art.

5. Illustrated in Barr, Matisse, p. 506.

6. Illustrated in Barr, Matisse, p. 485.

7. This drastically simplified account owes most to Greenberg’s “The New Sculpture,” Art and Culture, and Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, June, 1967.

8. I.e ., the Jeannette sculptures, for discussion of which see below.

9. William Tucker, “Four sculptors, part 3: Matisse,” Studio International, September, 1970. A thoughtful and important essay, to which my own account is indebted at several points.

10. Lawrence Gowing, Henri Matisse: Sixty-four Paintings, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966.

11. In “Art Chronicle: 1952,” Greenberg wrote of the importance to 19th-century painter/sculptors of their consciousness: “How the edges of a shape cut into the space around ii. This was the problem that haunted Cézanne, though he never tried to work it out in sculpture, and Matisse inherited in the end almost as many of Cézanne’s preoccupations as the Cubists did.” See below for discussion of Cézannesque aspects in Matisse’s sculpture.

12. Cf. Michael Fried’s perceptive comments on this issue, and its meaning for Manet, in his Three American Painters, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1965, p. 45, n. 3.

13. I am only too conscious, I might add, that this highly directional approach neglects to account for the development of Matisse’s sculpture in relation to the specific sculptural (and painterly) issues he was confronting at different times, and ignores several important works. I do this, however, for the sake of clarity and don’t believe I am withholding evidence to improve my arguments.

14. Elsen, The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, p. 71.

15. Anthony Caro recently spoke of how his early figurative sculptures “were to do with what it’s like to be inside the body . . . For example, when you’re lying down, you feel heavy; your weight causes you to feel flatl ened and pressed down” (Artforum, June; 1972, p. 56).

16. And to compare Brancusi and Matisse is to realize just how detached was the latter from issues of object-presence and of imagery. If both Brancusi and Malisse dealt with a similar issue—rendering the monolithic pictorial—Matisse worked analogously to painting, while Brancusi’s art is graphic and draftsmanlike in its sharp-cut contours.

17. For some more comments on this point, see my “The Language of Pre-Abstract Art,” Artforum, February, 1971.

18. Elsen, The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, p. 125.

19. Ibid., p. 132.

20. This is Michael Fried, in “Art and Objecthood,” on the surfaceness of Olitski’s sculpture. While Olitski, deriving primarily from Constructionist sources in his sculpture, is analogizing the surf ace thinness of painting, Matisse’s use of a “painterly” surface seems far more localized in ambition: to help make the depicled skin of his subjects relatively unreal and thus force attention towards the solid volumes they make visible. For further discussion of this point, see below.

21. See note 13, above.

22. Giacometti’s work is a relevant comparison here. He once spoke of the need to diminish objects to affirm their reality: “At one time I thought I saw people life-size. The more I drew back to preserve the whole, the more they diminished. It was only after 1946 that I began to perceive the distance that makes mental and not life-size” (Raoul-Jean Moulin, Giacometti: Sculptures, Paris, 1964). This helps illuminate the apparent contradiction between Matisse’s statement that in sculpture form must be definitely expressed so that it will carry at a distance and the small scale of the work which invites one to observe it closely. The small scale is, in part, a presentation of figures as if they were in fact physically distanced from the viewer.

23. Heidegger’s distinction between objects and existences, and his definition of different modes of seeing, is of obvious relevance here. Rücksicht, which Heidegger applies to looking at other people (as opposed to oneself or to environmental objects), has the implication of “considerateness”; and it is exactly that special kind of “attending to” that art like Matisse’s calls for (Cl. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, New York, 1962).