Verbal Descriptions

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Henri Matisse. Dance (I). Paris, Boulevard des Invalides, early 1909 72

Oil on canvas, 8' 6 1/2" x 12' 9 1/2" (259.7 x 390.1 cm). Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller in honor of Alfred H. Barr, Jr. © 2024 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Narrator 1: 7–2 Dance (First Version) Painted in 1909 by the French artist Henri Matisse, 1869 to 1954. Oil on Canvas, 8 feet 6 inches high by 12 feet 9 inches wide. 260 by 390 centimeters.

Narrator 2: This large painting is of five women holding hands in a circular dance, on a field of green, before a bold blue sky. The sinuous, sensuous curves of the approximately life–size dancers in their circular swirl, convey a vivid sense of rhythm and movement.

The painting is dominated by large expanses of just four colors. A hilly shape, in what might be described as emerald green suggests a lawn. It creates a wavy horizon where it meets the deep blue sky, about one–third of the way up the canvas. The five women wear no trace of clothing, and their skin is pale flesh, tinted with pink. The last color is a flat black that outlines the dancers and represents their shoulder length hair. On close examination, one can see that the black of their hair is sometimes tinted with brown or green, and the black that outlines the figures ranges from very dark, to almost gray.

The overall application of color is fairly matte with very little glossiness. There is a sense of ‘flatness’ to the scene. The dancers themselves might be two dimensional, cut from paper, for example. There is only the slight illusion of depth created by their circle of joined hands. The dancer at the left, and the one along the bottom of the painting face away and show only the backs of their heads and bodies – the two closest to the top face toward us – and the smallest figure to the right of the canvas is in profile. Their legs are all in motion, however there is little or no sense that they are supporting the weight of real dancers. Rather, in most cases their feet make light contact, or even float slightly above the green hillside.

Each of the five dancers is slightly different, giving them an individuality that exists in tension with the sameness of their simply drawn figures and features. The leftmost dancer in the 9 o’clock position has perhaps the most fluidly drawn form. She strides toward her, and our, left, while twisting her upper body to the right. A smoothly curved black line defines the left side of her body from the instep of her foot to the base of her breast. Upon close examination, the black oval of her hair is tinted with brown. Her back is arched. Her left arm reaches up toward the top of the painting and joins her to the leftmost of the two dancers facing us.

Proceeding clockwise, the top two dancers, with their heads reaching the uppermost edge of the canvas, form the back of the circle. Their hands are linked, and in fact, their outstretched arms seem to blend into one another. Their faces are represented with just a few strokes of black paint on their uniform pale pink flesh. Their ambiguous expressions might convey joy, or peace, or bliss. The fourth dancer, positioned at 3 o’clock, awkwardly bridges the compressed space between foreground and background. She leans back toward the painting’s right edge, seemingly off balance. The fifth figure, below and to the right of center, faces away from us. She leans to her left, and stretches her left arm – almost falling—to try and bridge the one gap in their circle. It’s as if their momentum has loosened her grip from the hand of the dancer to her left.

Narrator 1: To hear the Collection Tour audio on this work, press 5–2–4.