The four life-sized reliefs known today as Backs I-IV represent Matisse's most monumental and ambitious sculptural undertaking and the longest-lived single project of his career (figs. 1-4). This imposing set of reliefs, executed at widely spaced intervals between 1908 and 1931, has been lauded as "one of the artist's most distinctive achievements" (M. Mezzatesta, Henri Matisse, Sculptor/Painter, exh. cat., Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 1984, p. 79) and "one of the great landmarks of modern sculpture" (S. Nash, exh. cat., 2007, p. 9). The four Backs are united by the penetrating analysis of a single motif, the female nude leaning against a wall and viewed from behind. The compositions move from a relatively naturalistic rendering of the figure in Back I through progressively simplified and increasingly geometric anatomies to the startlingly stripped down, columnar figure in Back IV--"a stark but refined, highly architectural monolith, in which Matisse smoothed away the struggles of its earlier states" (S. D'Alessandro and J. Elderfield, exh. cat., op. cit., p. 355). The present work is one of twelve bronze casts of this culminating relief, and one of only two examples that currently remain in private hands.
Together, the Backs afford vivid insights into Matisse's formal and thematic concerns at critical moments in his career. Each of the reliefs is contemporaneous with a mural-sized canvas depicting the female nude: Back I with the second version of La Danse (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), Backs II and III with different states of Femmes à la rivière (Art Institute of Chicago), and Back IV with the reprise of the Danse theme that Matisse painted for Albert Barnes (Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania). In their relief form, the Backs are closer to Matisse's pictorial work than any other sculptures in his oeuvre and may have allowed him to clarify his ideas about mass and the relationship between figure and ground on a scale equivalent to his paintings. John Elderfield has explained, "[The Backs] served if not as studies then as sources of inspiration and mental organization for these paintings. They are the sculptural realizations of specific pictorial preoccupations, the tension between the sculptural and the pictorial giving them their particular power" (op. cit., 1978, pp. 72-74). At the same time, the Backs retain a forcefully sculptural quality. Stephen Nash has written:
"Most important in this dialogue is the way that Matisse, in the Backs, actually critiques or offers a strong counterpart to painting, turning fields of illusory form and space into extremes of dense substance. The depth of relief in all four bronzes is dramatic. The rectangular backgrounds are worked just as thoroughly as are the figures, the process diminishing distinctions between figure and ground and contributing to the sense of one massive, unified volume. All five figures are sunk ankle deep into a protruding ground plane and reach or extend up over the background wall, confounding any notion of confinement within the format and adding to the outward, expanding pressure created by each dense terrain of anatomy. There is about the Backs a sense of terribilità and aggressiveness rare in his paintings after the Fauve period. The basic sensibility in their making is wonderfully, ambitiously sculptural" (exh. cat., op. cit., p. 10).
Although the Backs are often now presented as a series, enabling the viewer to judge the remarkable transformation that the image undergoes, they were not conceived as such and were never exhibited together during Matisse's lifetime. While Back I has been publicly known since 1912, when it was included in Roger Fry's Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London, Backs III and IV were not exhibited until 1949 and 1950, respectively. Matisse had apparently forgotten about Back II by late in his career, and it was only discovered after his death in 1954. Marguerite Duthuit, the artist's daughter, has suggested that the reliefs should not be understood as a series at all, but rather as one sculpture that passed through several states (see J. Elderfield, op. cit., 1978, p. 194, notes 6 and 13). When Matisse felt that he had worked the relief to a point that satisfied him, he made two plaster casts. One of these served as a record of his progress and was later cast in bronze; the other provided the starting point for the next stage of evolution. To re-work the relief, Matisse added soft plaster where areas were to be built up and removed hardened forms with chisels, hammers, and rasps. Viewed in this light, Back IV represents not merely the last in a sequence, but rather Matisse's definitive statement of a theme that preoccupied him for more than two decades. Albert Elsen has written:
"For the fifth time [see below on Back 0] he organized his ideas, and the relief reflects the more nearly perfect order and clarity of his thought. All zones sustain each other more harmoniously. In this last transposition of the composition, each area impresses one as having been equally considered, and no single section is realized at the expense of another. The relief is more complex and sophisticated in its reductiveness than comparable figures in any of his previous drawings or paintings. Matisse had extended himself beyond previous efforts to realize the body as a single form" (op. cit., p. 192).
There were ample precedents for Matisse's decision to depict his model from the rear. Rodin, for example, made a small, half-length relief of a woman seen from behind (La Douleur, circa 1889) and also included several powerfully modeled backs in his celebrated Porte de l'enfer. In painting, Matisse might have looked to a whole sequence of 19th and early 20th century images, from Ingres's Valpinçon Bather (1808; Musée du Louvre) and Courbet's Baigneuses of 1853 (Musée Fabre, Montpelier) to certain of Gauguin's Tahitian works (e.g. fig. 5) and nudes by Matisse's Fauve colleagues Manguin, Rouault, and Marquet (see A.E. Elsen, op. cit., p. 180 and pls. 240-241). Particularly noteworthy are Cézanne's bather compositions, including a small canvas that Matisse himself owned and prized (fig. 6; see further Lot xxx). Nevertheless, as Albert Elsen has commented, "That there was an abundance of sources upon which Matisse could have drawn does not distract from the audacity of his first monumental undertaking in sculpture" (ibid., p. 182).
Matisse himself had explored the back view in painting only once before, in La Coiffure of 1901 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). However, numerous variations on the motif can be found in his drawings from as early as 1900 (see exh. cat., op. cit., Chicago, 2010, p. 73, figs. 4c-d), and he had made several sculptures with powerfully expressive backs, most notably Figure décorative of 1908 (Duthuit, no. 41). Indeed, Sarah Stein, who studied with Matisse in 1908, recorded in her notes that the artist specifically instructed his students that "a [sculpted] figure must have a spinal column" (quoted in J. Flam, Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 50). The planar, architectonic quality of Deux négresses, 1907 (Duthuit, no. 36) also seems to prepare for the Back series, as does a small 1908 bas-relief of a standing female nude seen from the front, which may represent Matisse's initial idea for the Back project (Duthuit, no. 40).
Matisse's first version of the Back was executed in the sculpture studio of the art school that he ran on the Boulevard des Invalides in Paris. This initial clay state, which pre-dates the sculpture known today as Back I, no longer survives. Conventionally referred to as Back 0, it is documented in a photograph that Eugène Druet took before Matisse moved to a new studio at Issy-les-Moulineaux in the fall of 1909 (fig. 7). Since Matisse spent the summer of 1909 at Cavalière and departed for Issy immediately upon his return, scholars have traditionally dated Back 0 to the spring of 1909 and have posited that Matisse's first venture into life-sized sculpture may be understood in relation to the commission that he received in March 1909 from Sergei Shchukin for the large, multi-figured decorative panels, La Danse and La Musique (Hermitage State Museums, St. Petersburg). In April 1908, however, two visitors to Matisse's studio recorded that they saw "two stunning things in clay, one a bas-relief, the back view of a huge figure, a hand up against the wall" (quoted in, op. cit., Chicago, 2010, p. 73). It is possible, therefore, that the first Back was as an independent exploration following the 1907-1908 Le Luxe paintings (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, and Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen), which are similar in size and format to the monumental bas-relief.
Not surprisingly, Back 0 is the most naturalistic of the various states of the sculpture. It depicts the model in a clearly articulated, natural standing position, with the weight on her left leg. She raises her left arm to grip the top of the background, which is understood as a wall or a screen, and leans her head against her forearm. Her left breast is compressed against the back plane, and her right arm is twisted so that the palm faces outward. The figure is truncated at the ankles, avoiding the problems that foreshortened feet would have created for the artist. The relief preserves the sensual appearance of the fleshy, amply proportioned model who posed for it, with the forms of the body organized around the soft arabesque of the spine.
When Matisse returned to the relief in the fall of 1909, following his move to Issy, he pared away this soft flesh to expose a more muscular, though less graceful figure: Back I (fig. 1). He trimmed the roll of hair, the left edge of the neck, the left hip and leg, and the right side of the torso to produce more angular, sharply defined forms, and sliced away the contour behind the right knee to clarify the interval between the legs. At the same time, he enlarged and unified the left upper arm and shoulder into a single bulging form and constructed thick, blocked-in parcels of muscle on the back that produce the impression of rugged terrain. The heightened anatomical articulation of Back I may be compared to the progression from La Danse I, Matisse's preliminary conception for the Shchukin panel (early 1909; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), to the definitive mural, La Danse II (late 1909-summer 1910; State Hermitage Museums, St. Petersburg). Like Back 0, Danse I has soft contours and a flat, unexpressive surface; Danse II, in contrast, is more robust and three-dimensional, perhaps reflecting Matisse's work on the bas-relief. Particularly noteworthy is the figure second from the left in Danse II, the most sculptural of all the dancers, whose hunched back and shoulder muscles are closely comparable to those of Back I.
It is not certain when Matisse returned to the Back project after completing Back I. The next state of the relief, Back II (fig. 2), is usually dated to 1913 on the basis of a letter that Matisse wrote to Charles Camoin in September: "I worked, however, on but a few things this summer; but I advanced my large painting of bathers, the portrait of my wife as well as my bas-relief" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Fort Worth, 1984, p. 97). However, a representation of the relief in L'Atelier rose of 1911 (Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow) has recently been interpreted as Back I early in its voyage to becoming Back II, with a thicker waist, a straighter spine, and a wider-legged stance (exh. cat., op. cit., Chicago, 2010, p. 159). Moreover, when Matisse exhibited Back I in 1912, he titled it an esquisse or sketch, which suggests that he may already have resumed work on the relief (ibid., p. 159).
In Back II, Matisse was principally concerned with creating an increasingly solid and stable figure with a more pared-down, geometric form. He straightened the spine and aligned it with the inside of the newly thickened left leg, producing a strong central axis. Diagonal lines run upward from base of spine like the branches of a tree, creating a series of wedge-shaped forms that accentuate the verticality of the figure. The activity of the surface has been calmed, and masses have been simplified and streamlined. The neck is now linked to the right wrist in a single arc, and the head, neck, and hair are subsumed into one long form. The exposed breast is more assimilated with the back and left shoulder, and the head and left forearm have fused. Overall, the body seems to have been restructured into a dialogue between straight and curved lines, which contrasts with the undulating arabesques and rugged surface topography of Back I.
At the same time that he worked on Back II, Matisse also resumed a project that he had begun in the spring of 1909: the monumental canvas Femmes à la rivière (Art Institute of Chicago), which depicts a group of female bathers wading in a shallow stream. According to the artist's son Pierre, Matisse in fact placed the painting and the sculpture side-by-side in the studio at Issy and worked on the two concurrently (see J. Elderfield, op. cit., 1978, p. 195, note 26). Matisse had originally conceived Femmes à la rivière as part of the Shchukin commission, but the collector rejected the theme, leaving Matisse to continue work on the canvas as an independent composition. A photograph of the painting in progress in November 1913 (fig. 9) reveals numerous formal relationships between the bather at the left and Back II: the contrast between the columnar left leg and the flexed right knee, the lines running upward from the base of the spine, and the suppression of subsidiary detail in favor of the definition of large, planar areas of the body.
The next version of the relief, Back III (fig. 3), is usually dated to 1916-1917, the same period in which Matisse brought Femmes à la rivière to completion. However, recent analysis of a series of photographs from May 1913 that show Matisse at work on the sculpture (fig. 8) indicates that these in fact depict Back II already on its way to becoming Back III (see exh. cat., op. cit., Chicago, 2010, p. 301). This suggests that Matisse must have quickly finished Back II and cast it upon his return from Morocco in March 1913 and then moved forward immediately to Back III. Moreover, a photograph from 1915-1916 of Marguerite posed with the bas-relief shows a work that is far more vertically structured and closer to the final form of Back III than the one in the 1913 photographs. As in the case of Back II, therefore, it is likely that the period of production for Back III was quite long, perhaps as much as three years.
In Back III, Matisse has reduced even more sharply the forms of Back II, reconceiving the body as a series of irregular vertical zones. The vestigial sense of contrapposto has been replaced by the parallel uprights of the trunk-like legs and the prominent, raised spine or plait of hair that seems to clamp the figure onto the surface. The earlier stance has been stiffened into that of a saluting figure at attention, with the main figural axes squared off with the framing edges of the relief. Matisse has reduced the depth of the relief and widened the overall form; details such as the fingers and the musculature of the limbs have been eliminated, and the breast, back, and arm now constitute a single, flattened volume. He has also complicated the relationship between figure and ground: the plait of hair and the negative space between the legs function as a single fulcrum around which the remaining forms are balanced, and the ground appears to encroach on the body at the waist and inner thighs.
Of all the Backs, Back III is the version that relates most closely to Matisse's contemporaneous painting. Once again, the left-hand bather in Femmes à la rivière (this time in its definitive state; fig. 10) shares several formal solutions with the relief, most notably the division of the body into narrow, vertical segments, the trunk-like legs, and the bold central structure running the length of the back. The vertical zones that make up Back III may also be compared to the flat slabs of color that form the background of Femmes à la rivière, while the dark, centralized vertical is a prominent feature of slightly earlier paintings such as Poissons rouges et palette, 1914, and Nature morte d'après de Heem, 1915 (both The Museum of Modern Art, New York). The spatial concerns of Back III, in which figure and ground are essentially part of the same substance, may be seen in 1916 in both Portrait de Greta Prozor (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris) and L'italienne (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). Even more striking is the relationship between Back III and the seated figure at the bottom right in Les marocains of 1916 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), which share the sense of being a synthesis of separately studied and simplified figural parts. Elderfield has explained, "By 1916 Matisse had fully absorbed the schematizations of Cubism to create a newly architectonic decorative style in which the relationship of abstracted sign-like planar units both with each other and with their surrounding space was more important than descriptive clarity. Back III is no less a product of this conception than the paintings of this period" (op. cit., 1978, p. 78).
After completing Back III, Matisse did not return to the project for well over a decade. Back IV, the final version of the relief, is usually dated between 1929 and 1931. This was a key transitional moment in Matisse's career, when he was turning away from the descriptive detail and illusionistic space of his Nice period and beginning to formulate the less tangible space of his late paintings and cut-outs. Although the relief may have been executed before Matisse's trip to Tahiti in the spring of 1930 or between the Tahitian sojourn and his journey to the United States that autumn and winter, it is more likely that it was undertaken the following year, after the artist had received a commission from Albert Barnes for a mural to occupy the three large lunettes in the main gallery of his home (Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania). Free to choose his own subject, Matisse selected the dance, a theme employed earlier in his first great decorative commission for Sergei Shchukin. Back I was closely related to the Shchukin Danse, and it is not surprising that Matisse should have returned to the bas-relief as he undertook a second large decorative project devoted to the same theme.
In Back IV, Matisse has carried the simplifications and abstractions of the preceding states to a new extreme. The composition consists of three simple vertical zones, much enlarged from before in relation to the ground. The central area is a fusion of the head, hair, and spine into a single shape; the left breast has been entirely subsumed into the torso, while the hand and hip bone at the right have left only a trace. The negative areas of the relief have taken on a more definite quality, serving to lock the figure into the composition, and the depressions on the surface have been reduced, producing a greater integration of figure and ground. The nearly symmetrical harmony of the work, the fluidity of the contours, and the homogenous nature of the surface all indicate a growing willingness on Matisse's part to surrender the expressiveness of individual parts to the decorative unity of the whole. Elderfield has concluded, "This last relief... sets itself apart from the preceding states. Although it completes the process of simplification begun twenty years before, no longer is it itself the product of explorative modeling, of a vigorous attack on the figure. It builds on those things, but its purity and utter tranquility are of an entirely different and far more distanced order" (ibid., p. 78).
The highly sculptural quality of Matisse's early studies for the Barnes Danse suggests that Back IV played an important role in helping the artist to clarify his thoughts for the mural. The sculpture harmonized the relationship between volume and ground, preparing the way for the massive yet flat figures on the lunettes. Indeed, the rigorously architectonic quality of the plaster relief may have explicitly evoked for Matisse the architectural setting of the Barnes composition, of which he wrote in 1934, "The expression of this painting should be associated with the severity of a volume of whitewashed stone" (quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., 1995, p. 115).
In its radical simplification of form and its nearly symmetrical composition, the fourth Back is also a harbinger of some of the most important developments in Matisse's late work. These features may be seen in paintings such as La Grande robe bleue of 1937 (fig. 11), which shares with Back IV the strong central axis and the division of the figure into three simple vertical zones; even the position of the raised left arm is comparable in the two works, giving a strong tension to the near-symmetry of the rest of the composition. The non-plastic space and synthetic imagery of Matisse's cut-outs also owes a great deal to Back IV. In Zulma of 1950 (fig. 12) and Nu bleu debout of 1952 (Private collection), for example, Matisse continues the emphasis upon the verticality and near-symmetry of the figure, the use of separated forms arranged around a prominent central axis, and the unification of the image by the equalization of figure and ground. Indeed, a photograph of Matisse's studio from 1953 shows a plaster cast of Back IV surrounded by examples of his recent drawings and cut-outs (fig. 13). Elderfield has written, "[Back IV] remained in his studio until the end of his life, where its reductive purity, the outcome of a development going back to his earliest decorative paintings, was totally in harmony with his last decorative works, the large-scale cutouts, for whose simplified, separated forms this work prepared" (op. cit., p. 80).
The plaster originals of Backs I-IV are housed today in the Musée Matisse in Le Cateau-Cambrsis. The plasters were each cast in a bronze edition of twelve (numbered 00, 0, and 1-10) by the foundries Valsuani, Rudier, and Susse between 1948 and 1981. Complete sets of the four reliefs are housed today in nine major museums: The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Tate Gallery, London; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Kunsthaus, Zurich; Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart; Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden, University of California at Los Angeles; The Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, Nu de dos I, 1909. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Barcode: 2724 9758
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Nu de dos II, 1913. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Barcode: 2724 9765
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, Nu de dos III, 1916-1917. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Barcode: 2724 9879
(fig. 4) The present lot.
(fig. 5) Paul Gauguin, Tahitiennes sur la plage, 1892. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Barcode: 2724 9826
(fig. 6) Paul Cézanne, Trois baigneuses, 1876-1877. Petit Palais, Paris (Gift of Henri Matisse).
Barcode: 2724 9833
(fig. 7) Henri Matisse, Nu de dos 0, 1908-1909. Photograph by Eugène Druet.
Barcode: 2724 9741
(fig. 8) Matisse at work on Nu de dos, May 1913. Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn.
Barcode: 2724 9796
(fig. 9) Henri Matisse, Femmes à la rivière (in progress), November 1913. Photograph by Eugène Druet.
Barcode: 2724 9772
(fig. 10) Henri Matisse, Femmes à la rivière, 1916-1917. Art Institute of Chicago.
Barcode: 2724 9802
(fig. 11) Henri Matisse, La Grande robe bleue, 1937. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Barcode: 2724 9710
(fig. 12) Henri Matisse, Zulma, 1950. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.
Barcode: 2724 9727
(fig. 13) Matisse's studio with Nu de dos IV, circa 1953.
Barcode: 2724 9734