In the spring of 1906 Matisse traveled to Algeria. It was his first trip outside of Europe and, while he was only gone for two weeks, it had a profound effect on the direction of his art. There he was able to see first hand, and in the context of their native land, objects that he had heretofore known mostly from reproduction. He admired their directness and purity, qualities that he strove for in his own work. There were a few curio shops on the rue de Renne in Paris which sold Northern African sculptures. A Vili figure from the Congo that he purchased for 50 francs from Emile Heymann appears in his painting Nature morte avec une sculpture africaine which was painted the same year as the present sculpture. Matisse considered sculpting to be a natural continuation of the dialogue that he had begun with his painting. As he said: "I made sculpture because what interested me in painting was the clarification of my ideas. I changed medium and worked in clay as a respite from painting when I had done absolutely all that I could for the moment. Which is to say that it was always for the purpose of organization. It was done to give order to my sensations, to seek a method that completely suited me. When I found it in sculpture, it helped me in painting" (quoted in Matisse: The Man and His Art, London, 1986, p. 77).
The frontal pose, rugged technique and intimate size of La vie--Torse avec tête are central to Matisse's stated aim: "a sculpture must invite us to handle it as an object...the smaller the bit of sculpture, the more the essentials of form must exist" (quoted in A.H. Barr, Matisse, His Art and His Public, London, 1975, p. 50). As Jack Flam notes: "its protruding arms and breasts, exaggerated buttocks, and large head also recalls certain African figurines, as well as Paleolithic 'Venus' figures. This piece of sculpture is also a metaphorical embodiment of growth and becoming, as evidenced by the general arrangement of the forms in a plantlike image in which the head functions like a flower, a metaphor reinforced by the name by which its is usually known: La vie, 'Life'" (ibid., p. 181).