A monumental image of joy and energy, Dance is also strikingly daring. Matisse made the painting while preparing a decorative commission for the Moscow collector Sergei Shchukin, whose final version of the scene, Dance (II), was shown in Paris in 1910. Nearly identical in composition to this work, its simplifications of the human body were attacked as inept or willfully crude. Also noted was the work's radical visual flatness: the elimination of perspective and foreshortening that makes nearer and farther figures the same size, and the sky a plane of blue. This is true, as well, of the first version.
Here, the figure at the left moves purposefully; the strength of her body is emphasized by the sweeping unbroken contour from her rear foot up to her breast. The other dancers seem so light they nearly float. The woman at the far right is barely sketched in, her foot dissolving in runny paint as she reels backward. The arm of the dancer to her left literally stretches as it reaches toward the leader's hand, where momentum has broken the circle. The dancers' speed is barely contained by the edges of the canvas.
Dance (II) is more intense in color than this first version, and the dancers' bodies—there deep red—are more sinewy and energetic. In whatever canvas they appear, these are no ordinary dancers, but mythical creatures in a timeless landscape. Dance, Matisse once said, meant "life and rhythm."
In March 1909, Matisse received a commission from the Russian merchant Sergei Shchukin for two large decorative panels, Dance and Music (now in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). This painting was made quickly as a compositional study for Dance, which was intended to hang on the landing of a staircase, approached from the lower right. This may be why the lower figure leans into the painting, increasing the sense of movement, and why the figure at left is so large, slowing it. Drawing visible beneath the paint shows that Matisse started with two smaller figures where the large figure is now.
Curator, Ann Temkin: In 1908, the year before he made this painting, Matisse was quoted as saying, "Suppose I want to paint a woman's body. First of all, I imbue it with grace and charm, but I know that I must give something more. I will condense the meaning of this body by seeking its essential lines. The charm will be less apparent at first glance, but it must eventually emerge from the new image, which will have a broader meaning, one more fully human."
When Matisse first painted this work, its early audiences weren't able to find the charm and grace at all. What they saw were five figures that did not seem to be capturing the essence of women but seemed almost to be more like paper dolls. One hundred years later, this painting and its companion called Dance (II) are very much seen as quintessential evocations of grace.
What matters to Matisse isn't some realistic description of what a ring of dancers would look like, but the way that this ring of dancers would fill the dimensions of this rectangular canvas, and thus you have things happening like the very long reach between the two dancers in the foreground at the far left and then at the bottom right, where you see their arms reaching and barely touching each other's and, in fact, the way in which the woman on the far left's right hand is painted, it almost looks like it's unfinished, but for Matisse, that was enough. Matisse painted it in a very quick amount of time, less than a week, and he did something that was so shocking, in a sense, in making a painting that's essentially a few colors.
Another radical thing is that the sky and the earth are not given any detail whatsoever. It's just a purely flat expanse of this one blue color and this one green color, painted in such a way that you realize that you're not in some kind of specific place that can be identified, but rather some kind of ideal place in the mind's eye.
Director, Glenn Lowry: This painting was restored in 2003 and 2004.
Conservator, Jim Coddington: The restoration of Dance (I) was an instance of removing varnish from a picture that was not meant to be varnished at all. We know that Matisse did not want this painting varnished. He mentions it in letters, he talks about the other version of Dance, and its unvarnished state. So it’s very clear that he did not want varnish on this painting.
One of the interesting things that became apparent in the course of the cleaning was how areas where he painted more thinly, where the canvas texture was still more evident, looked to the eye to be more diffuse, more matte because the texture of the canvas diffuses the light. The presence of the varnish tended to diminish these differences and that’s not what Matisse had in mind at all.
One of the interesting things that occurred as we took the discolored varnish off was that each of the figures has slightly different hair color. The figure on the far left is somewhat redder. The figure in the upper right is greenish. One of the figures is slightly brown and the other two are somewhat blackish. So Matisse was actually very subtly achieving some personality to each of these dancers with these different hair colors. It’s subtle, but it’s definitely there, and it was quite muted by the discolored varnish.