m a r c h 18, 2012

In the late 1920s the economic situation in Europe, which had not yet recovered from the aftermath of World War I, left much to be desired, and the Great Depression period was setting in in the USA. It was a time of trial for people in the arts, and Henri Matisse was no exception. He had lost his major collectors: Sarah and Michael Stein had lost their unique collection in the wartime years and returned to the States; Ivan Shchukin’s collection had been nationalized after the Russian revolution and transferred to the Museum of New Western Art in Moscow; French collectors and museums had little interest in Matisse. The most serious American collector of his paintings was the notorious Albert Barnes, who was buying up paintings galore, availing himself of the artists’ plight.

In September 1930 Matisse went to the USA at the invitation of the Carnegie Prize Committee as one of the prize winners. Simultaneously he wanted to try and settle his financial problems, counting on a meeting with Barnes. By that time the latter already had nearly 200 Renoirs and 80 Cézannes.  Barnes had already been collecting Matisse for ten years.

They first met on September 27, 1930, and Barnes there and then suggested that Matisse decorate the central hall of his new museum in Merion outside Philadelphia. Both his client and Matisse were highly enthusiastic and pleased with their deal. Barnes commissioned Matisse to do murals three times the size of Dance and Music put together, which had been bought by Shchukin. The artist was to do the job in twelve months and asked a mere $30,000 for the murals (that same year Barnes paid half that amount for a small canvas by Matisse). Matisse explained that in this way he wanted “to address a new public in America.”

The area he had to paint was fifteen and a half meters long and about six meters high. Three stone columns divided that space into three arches overshadowed by the vaulted ceiling. Three tall glass doors leading to the garden let sunlight into the hall.

Barnes gave Matisse full freedom to choose the style and subject of the mural, and the latter immediately decided that he would paint a Dance. He had first painted figures in a round dance in his Joie de vivre, which Barnes now had at Merion. It was that picture that in its time had inspired Sergei Shchukin to commission Matisse in 1909 to do his first Dance. Upon his return to Nice, Matisse pinned a reproduction of Shchukin’s panel to a garage wall and sketched a series of “variations on the theme” of his new Dance. He did the composition itself full scale on three five-meter long canvases to be connected together, using a long bamboo stick with a piece of charcoal at the end. “I was possessed by the rhythm of the dance, which led me on,” he confided later on. In his first study he showed three huge figures caught in a dance and “going” beyond the boundaries of the three huge arches forming the mural. Heads, arms, legs and hands disappeared beyond the confines of the canvas to join the invisible bodies which flashed on the pendentives. The dancers soared upwards, moving swiftly from one side to another and flying over the stone columns separating the arches into the imaginary space behind them. Matisse said that it was a new start for him, like in the time of fauvism, when he had had to abandon complexity and finesse in favor of elementary principles – pure color, shape and movement, to the “materials exciting sentiments.”

110 Dance by Matisse: From the History of the Mural

While the mural was taking shape, Barnes was getting more and more impatient. He assailed Matisse with letters, asking him to show his progress with the murals and threatening to come to Nice. After six months of work Matisse decided to change tactics and use an entirely new method. He put his brushes aside and hired a professional wall painter to paint huge sheets of white paper black, grey, pink and blue in accordance with his instructions. After that Matisse began to put the composition on the colored paper, while his assistant cut out fragments of figures and pinned them to the canvas. “Nobody ever addressed problems of shape and color in this way either before or after him,” said the Surrealist André Masson who watched Matisse conduct with his pointer, as if it were a real magic wand. (“I had to rearrange my work as a director… In a way it looked like endless filming, but I depended here on architecture, and it set the tone. Everything had to form an architectural whole, and I had to blend the drawing with the wall so that under the enormous protuberance of the massive arches the lines would not be lost but flow one into another in uninterrupted movement…  To organize it all and to get something alive and singing, I had to search and try, all the while changing stretches of color with respect to black.”)

Work on the mural for Barnes was nearing completion, and soon the Dance was put on public view at the Georges Petit Gallery in Paris. Special lighting had been installed in the hall and working hours were extended till midnight to accommodate all those wishing to have a look at the Dance before it was dispatched to the States. The American press was preparing to receive the Merion mural with much ado, when Matisse suddenly made a horrible discovery. A wrathful cable from Barnes “You’ve made a gross mistake” only confirmed Matisse’s fears that he had made a mistake in measurements by nearly a whole meter and his twelve-months-long efforts were wasted. The enraged client sailed off to France that very day and on March 4, 1932, was already talking to the artist in Paris. The fact that Matisse was bewildered had a soothing effect on Barnes. Instead of accusing him, Barnes was mollified and agreed there and then that everything be made from scratch, all the more so since he did not have to pay for the remake.

His stamina and habit acquired in childhood to do hard and tedious work alone helped Matisse to hold on for another twelve months.  After finishing the first “botched” panel with six leaping figures, which had become even more agitated and aggressive, Matisse got down to version No. 2 of another series of canvases. He sketched the new, more free and lyrical dance at stunning speed in early July.  By the end of summer he was quite ready to get down to the painstaking work, which called for great precision, to connect shape with color by using scissors and colored paper, instead of brushes and palette.

In January 1933 Barnes came to Nice to see what progress had been made. Even though he liked what he saw very much, he could not refrain from reminding Matisse that, given the current downfall of the art market, nobody apart from him could guarantee him steady income and he should keep that in mind.  After Barnes had left, Matisse continued working at an even more feverish rate.

In late April Matisse finished his Dance. During its unofficial preview the choreographer Massine said that Matisse had fulfilled his dream of dance. Matisse abandoned his plan to exhibit Dance in Paris before shipping it to the States.

On May 4, together with his panel packed neatly in the hold, Matisse sailed off to New York. On Saturday, May 13, the first of the three panels was installed. “Without seeing this splendor, it is impossible to imagine it,” Matisse wrote to his friend Bussy. “As soon as I saw the panel in place, I felt that it had separated from me… In my studio it was just a picturesque canvas, but at the museum of Barnes it became heavy and solid as rock: it seemed to have been made simultaneously with the building.” Barnes was happy: “Now these premises can well be called a cathedral. Your painting is beaming with colors like stained glass.”

Barnes announced that he was delighted with Matisse’s panels but had no intention to show them to the public. When Matisse sent a cable to Merion on Friday to arrange for a visit, Barnes had already locked his palace and left for Europe. “He is sick,” Matisse wrote to his daughter. “He is a real egocentric monster: nobody apart from himself exists for him… Nobody should disturb him!… This is strictly between you and me – the main thing is that he has given me a chance to express myself on a grand scale and acknowledged, as far as he could, the brilliant result of my work.”

210 Dance by Matisse: From the History of the Mural

Matisse would never see his Dance again. The ten days when he had shown the panels to his close friends at the garage in Nice remained their only appearance in public. The artist had set off to America, anticipating a grand reception and attention from the press and the public. He returned to Nice depressed and barely aware of what had actually happened. Time was to show that Barnes was as good as his word.  Till the end of his life (and that of Matisse) the Merion foundation could be visited only with the personal permission of its owner, who denied this opportunity as a matter of principle not only to journalists, but also to collectors, curators and ordinary lovers of painting. Even the colored reproductions of the Dance (the same as of the Joie de vivre and other pictures) were forbidden. Even in the 1980s his collection was still hard of access to the public.

Nobody ever commissioned Matisse to make another mural, yet he never stopped dreaming about that. The blow dealt to him by Barnes was a veritable knockout.

Upon his return from America Matisse began to finish his first version of the Dance. By mid-November Matisse had done his “rejected” Dance, brought it to his studio and put it up on the wall “as if it were a stage curtain.” With the help of André Gides, Paul Valery and the young André Malraux a well-known French politician got wind of the misunderstanding with the panels and of the fact that the artist had its initial version in Nice. In the summer of 1936 the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris purchased the first version of the Merion Dance. The mural was to be displayed at the “Exhibition of Independent Art 1895-1937” at the Petit Palais in the summer of 1937. Matisse and Picasso were to be accorded a pride of place at the exposition. However, realizing that the powerful Guernica would overshadow Matisse’s romping dancers, the exhibition curators decided to replace the Dance with Raoul Dufy’s Electricity Fairy. As a result, for nearly forty years Matisse’s mural had been confined to the Museum of Modern Art storeroom. It was only in 1977 that the Dance appeared on the wall of a Tokyo palace. Matisse, who dreamed most of all about monumental paintings, was not destined to decorate any public building in France. “I had been ready to do as many decorative paintings as they would have commissioned me to do,” he said resignedly later on.

The initial version of the Dance panel is now on show at the “Danser sa vie” exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris.