The concept of dancing and the ability to be moved by music was intriguing to Henri Matisse. This fascination became a common subject in his work. And yet, when first shown, his art did not receive the accolades it does today. In this article, KAZoART deciphers a painting full of clever references whose understanding allows us to better appreciate the true essence of this Matisse masterpiece.

A few words about Henri Matisse

Matisse was never “destined” to become a painter. Born in 1869 in northern France, he studied law in Paris. In 1889, following an appendicitis, his mother bought him a painting set. It was from this point up until his final breath that he would devote his life to his art. Using it as a vehicle for harmony and truth, he once said, “If only I could live longer so that I could keep on painting…”

Henri Matisse circa 1905

A bit of context about the work

Matisse created his painting during a period of artistic maturity. At the time of its execution, he was reaching the height of his use of symbolism in art. His compositions became more refined as the colours become more balanced.

The Dance was commissioned by the famous Russian collector, Sergei Shchukin. He asked for Matisse to create two paintings to hang in his home in Moscow. It was decided that the three underlying themes would be action, passion and contemplation.

1. “Offensive” nudity

When Shchukin commissioned Matisse to paint this work, he asked for the dancers to be dressed. Matisse’s choice to depict them in the nude proved to be scandalous when he exhibited it at the Autumn Salon in Paris. Some even went as far as accusing him of having a mental illness.

This situation strained their artist/patron relationship. Eventually the two reached an agreement saying that the dancers could be depicted naked but that no genitalia would be explicitly illustrated.

2. Matisse and The Dance’s recurrence

joie de vivre
Henri Matisse. The Joy of Life, 1905–1906. BF719. 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © The Barnes Foundation

The Dance is actually a zoomed-in version of part of the painting The Joy of Life, which Matisse created in 1905. It is of great historical importance especially in regards to the development of the Fauvist movement. Matisse was inspired to paint this at the sight of field workers dancing on a beach in the south of France.

In both paintings, the figures appear to move together in a circular motion. However, in The Dance, Matisse places only five characters in his circle instead of six. Their body parts are simplified, making them look non-binary, neither associating with female or male characteristics. Their skin colour is also a uniform tan.

Twenty years later, patron Albert C. Barnes commissioned Matisse to produce another version of La Danse. It was then that he made his large-scale wall panel of cut paper.

Henri Matisse at the Barnes Foundation

3. A rhythmic dance in a simplified setting


The massive painting measures 230 by 391 centimetres. However, even in these dimensions, the framework is too narrow for the size of the figures. In order for them to fully fit into the frame, Matisse had to put an arch in some of their backs.

Thus, the viewer’s gaze is drawn in by their circular characteristics: the figures on top are folded, in the act of arching their backs, while those on the bottom are extended. Their curves dominate the composition and by joining hands, their circular shape gives the painting a feeling of movement and motion.

4. A reference to Michelangelo?

Michelangelo, The Creation of Man, ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, 1510. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

If you look at the two hands of the characters on the left side, you’ll notice that they are the only two who are not touching. Art historians see this as a reference to the hands of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Painted by Michelangelo in 1510, his characters are depicted in similar positions. Perhaps this was Matisse’s way of paying homage to the great Italian Renaissance master 400 years later. If such is the case, we do not know why, we can only appreciate the subtleties.

Matisse-inspired work on KAZoART – Laura Vallée Remond

KAZoART artist, Laura Vallée Remond references Matisse’s best-known work in her collage entitled Portrait of Charlotte.

Portrait de charlotte (2)
Portrait of Charlotte ©Laura Vallée Remond