Henri Matisse – Back I-IV

Matisse backs

The Artist

Henri Matisse was born in Le Cateau-Cambresis (northern France) on 31 December 1869. He initially studied law and worked in a solicitors office. During this time he visited the ‘Quentin de la Tour’ school of drawing. In 1891 he abandoned law to enroll at the Academie Julian in Paris. His recognition as a painter started after successful exhibitions at the ‘Salon des Independants’ and ‘Salon d’Automne’ in 1905, the sensational exhibition that gave birth to the ‘Fauve’ group. Although he began to make sculptures very early in his career it was after 1928 when he devoted his work mainly to sculptures and graphic art.

It was in sculptures rather than paintings where he realised his interest in the human figure: ‘What interests me most is neither still life, nor landscape but the human figure. It is through it that I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have towards life.’

Matisse was one of the most important artists of the 20th century. He died on 3 November 1954 whilst working on a rose window for the Union church near New York.

The Artwork

Matisse’s back is one of the most extraordinary sculptural series of the 20th century. The first ‘back’ was made by Matisse around 1909-10, 100 years ago! It shows a natural figure which is progressively simplified over the following years. It was not, however a move towards abstraction. His work was always based on nature including the human body but focusing on the essential forms. Another good example for this is ‘The Snail’ from 1953 (below). This collage achieves a perfect balance between colours (primary and secondary colours) and the essential structure of the snail. At this time he was bedridden and severely effected by arthritis. He was barely able to paint let alone sculpturing. He was, however, able to tear or cut out the pieces of paper and directed his assistants to place them on the canvas. He claimed that tearing out the paper gave him the same pleasure as sculpturing.

The backs were made over a period of over 20 years (back IV in 1930) and followed his artistic development . He took the first back some years after it was created, made alterations with clay, took a cast and produced a new version. This process was repeated for all later versions and represents a form of artistic evolution.

There are only few galleries which have all 4 backs in their collection (TATE Gallery, London, UK)

Henri Matisse 'The Snail', 1953

Henri Matisse 'The Snail',1953 Tate Gallery, London