Ten Fun Facts About ‘Dance’ by Matisse - ART FIX
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Ten Fun Facts About 'Dance' by Matisse

We recently introduced you to the French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954), in our episode ‘Feeling Blue - Colorful Stories’, whose expressive color palette made him one of the leading artist of the 20th century avant-garde, and the co-founder of the Fauvism movement (translating from French les fauves, meaning ‘wild beasts’).

There’s one painting that particularly stands out: Matisse’s monumental ‘Dance (1910)’, in which we see five bright red figures in a circle, clasping each others hands. In front of a deep blue sky and lush, green hill, the figures are dancing and contorting their bodies in ecstasy: an image of pure joy.

Time and time again, artists, historians and curators turn to this painting for inspiration – but what exactly is it that makes this one work of Matisse’s such a timeless masterpiece? Let’s get to the bottom of this vibrant artwork with this Quick Fix: here’s ten fun facts about ‘Dance’, you probably didn’t know:

1, ‘Dance’ was commissioned by a Russian merchant.

Matisse’s most famous painting was actually a private commission by the Russian textile merchant Sergei Shchuckin in 1909. He intended to hang the painting in the staircase in his Moscow residence, the Trubetskoy Palace. 

2. It was supposed to be a series of three paintings.

Shchuckin originally commissioned a series of three paintings, all revolving around the universal themes of dance and music. In the end, only two paintings were completed: the second one titled “Music”, which now hangs alongside ‘Dance’. 

3. ‘Dance’ is a precursor of the Modernist movement.

The color juxtaposition and flatness of the background and figures in ‘Dance’ was extraordinarily innovative for his time, breaking with the details of previous Western traditions. The organic simplicity of the figures makes them meld with the background: the painting is more of a rhythmic, evocative color composition than an accurate figurative painting! Such features were later picked up by the Modernist movement.

4. One of Matisse’s previous paintings served as inspiration for ‘Dance.’

One of Matisse’s earlier paintings, “Joie de Vivre (Joy of Life, 1906)” foreshadows the ‘Dance’; a little easter-egg for his countless fans. Can you spot the little group of figures by the lake? 

5. Matisse’s ‘Dance’ is inspired by universal human behaviors and cross-cultural exchanges.

Dance and music are universal, uniting human behaviors that date back thousands of years and originating in Shamanic rituals. Matisse and his contemporaries from the Primitivist movement, such as Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso, were further inspired by African sculpture and the “primal energy” their simple form radiates. This is also evident in the ‘Dance’, particularly in the voluptuous female forms it portrays. The angular, naked bodies dancing in reckless abandonment suggest a rejection of civilized society. 

6. ‘Dance’ is now a political symbol of Russian history.

During the Russian Revolution, Shchukin’s Moscow mansion was raided, and both Matisse’s ‘Dance’ and ‘Music’ were looted, mysteriously disappearing for several years. Only in 1930 did they resurface again, after which they found a permanent home in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. To this day, they are not only a symbol of great art, but also of a defining period of Russian history. 

Henri Matisse, 1951. (Photo by Michel MAKO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

7. Matisse himself commented on this painting.

Matisse said about this painting: “I have attained with these three colors my luminous harmony as well as purity of tone.” Indeed, the energetic ‘Dance’ scene also has something relaxing. Matisse always insisted on wanting to create art that was comforting: What I dream of is a balanced, pure and quiet art which can avoid the trouble or frustrating subjects. This kind of art gives everyone’s mind peace and comfort, like a comfortable chair where they can have a rest when tired.

8. The colors have spiritual, symbolic meaning.

Different colors have different associations. In ‘Dance’, the red symbolizes the element fire, or man in his raw, primal form. The blue sky symbolizes heaven, whereas the green grass symbolizes the element of earth. The circular composition of the figures comes to stand for unity between these three elements. All that’s missing now is water, and we’ve got ourselves the Avatar of art!

9. ‘Dance’ has unexpected ties to photography.

There is a reason for the simplicity of Matisse’s painting in ‘Dance’, in which the only sense of dimension is given by the faintly darker outlines of the dancing figures. With photography becoming more popular in early 1900s, Matisse believed that recording details in painting became superfluous, since the camera would capture things with much greater precision than an artist ever could. This allowed the artist to focus on other aspects of painting, such as composition, form, rhythm and color. 

10. ‘Dance I’ in the MoMA

In March 1909, Matisse created a preliminary version of ‘Dance’. It was a compositional study and uses paler colors and less detail. 

It is also featured in the background of Matisse’s ‘Nasturtiums with the Painting “Dance I’, from 1912.

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