July 11, 2011

Matisse and La Dance de Paris

La Danse de Paris, 1931-33
The celebrated image of La Danse de Paris by Henri Matisse has been reproduced in art books and made into prints all over the world. Familar though I may be with the image, the first encounter with the actual work at the Musee d'Arte Moderne in Paris was still an awe inspiring experience.

The Unfinished Dance, 1931
On entering the Salle Matisse, a room dedicated to the display of La Danse de Paris (1931-33) and The Unfinished Dance (1931), I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the triptych artworks (15m x 5m) that dominated the space. The monumental triptychs are two of the three in the Dance series that were created as a mural for Barnes' Foundation in Philadelphia. The complete works as they are seen today joined the museum collection only in 1992.

File:La danse (I) by Matisse.jpg
La Danse, 1909
La Danse, 1910
Two earlier versions of La Danse were created in 1909 and 1910 and they are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg respectively. Compared to these earlier works on the same subject made two decades ago, the 1930s series shows new vigour, bolder simplification and an experimentation with different media.

"I would not hesitate to give up painting if my ultimate expression must be achieved in another way," proclaimed Matisse. In La Danse de Paris, he abandoned the traditional oil on canvas and invented the new technique of using coloured paper cut-outs to put the finishing touches to his work. He used eleven flat-coloured gouache cut-outs forming the diagonal grounds (black/pink/dark blue) on which the grey figures are superimposed. Upon close inspection, you will see pinpricks near the bottom of the painting. These tiny holes were made when pieces of coloured paper were pinned to the canvas.
"He drew his lines directly, whatever the size or format."
Matisse, standing on a bench, working on The Unfinished Dance, 1931

Matisse is also known for his draughtsmanship and unusual working method. He painted huge murals and canvases using a stick of charcoal attached to a bamboo cane. The simplicity of the lines - the fluid curves of the figures and dynamic vertical bands, as well as the use of a small number of colours in a large flat area were to become Matisse's unique style that he returned to later in his life.

It is rare that a piece of art gets a room to itself and La Danse de Paris certainly deserves the honour.


  1. Very nice post.
    Ace critic Robert Hughes has termed The Dance as “one of the few wholly convincing images of physical ecstasy made in the twentieth century.” This is undoubtedly true for almost any other epoch of art.

  2. thanks for this thorough review--how hard it was to find something so well-written. I referenced it in my blog--hope you don't mind:)


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