A special chapter in the history of modern sculpture could be devoted to artists who are known primarily for their careers as painters, but who have also made groundbreaking contributions to the understanding of three-dimensional form. Henri Matisse, celebrated as one of this century’s greatest colorists, is also now recognized for the brilliant invention he brought to his sculptural compositions.
Born in La Cateau-Cambr?sis, in northern France, Matisse first studied law before taking up painting at the age of twenty-one, and in 1891 he enrolled at the Acad?mie Julian in Paris. The following year he transferred to the ?cole des Beaux Arts, where he studied under the great Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau. In 1899, Matisse was introduced to Andr? Derain, who in turn introduced him to Maurice de Vlaminck. These artists shared a fascination with the tonal dynamics of Post-Impressionism; their vivid compositions increasingly gave color an emotive, independent, and antinaturalistic role. They exhibited together at the 1905 and 1906 Salon d’Automne, where their paintings created a sensation, leading one critic to refer to them as “Les Fauves” or “wild beasts.” By 1909 Matisse shifted to a more serene style in paintings, executed with broad color planes, simplified structures, and idyllic subjects.
Matisse’s first sculptures were created during his student years. Not surprisingly, his earliest figures were copies after small-scale academic bronzes. By 1900 Matisse had begun more ambitious compositions. His Serf, 1900-1903, took Rodin’s The Walking Man as a point of departure. Where Rodin cropped the figure to emphasize the dynamism of the pose, Matisse chose to emphasize the static qualities of his standing figure. Over the next decade Matisse created a number of female nudes, variously rendered as standing and reclining figures, which reveal his careful study of the model. Unlike such contemporaries as Aristide Maillol, who consciously echoed classical archetypes, Matisse sought to render the female nude with a new immediacy, freed of art-historical conventions.
The Backs are Matisse’s most radical works in bronze. The figure, shown from the back, is executed in high relief against a framing ground, a painterly device with few precedents in sculpture. By turning the figure away from the viewer, Matisse explores the challenge of endowing the human form with expressive power. In the succession of works, the figure is progressively straightened and the axis of the spine becomes the increasing focus of the composition. The four panels were executed over a twenty-year span, with each successive image reworked from a plaster cast of the preceding one. The Backs were never shown together during Matisse’s lifetime and were not conceived as a series or set. Rather, they should be regarded as one work that passed through four stages-an ongoing sculptural clarification of the artist’s vision.