Verbal Descriptions

Henri Matisse. The Swimming Pool, Maquette for ceramic (realized 1999 and 2005). Nice-Cimiez, Hôtel Régina, late summer 1952 60

Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on painted paper, Overall 73" x 53' 11" (185.4 x 1643.3 cm). Installed as nine panels in two parts on burlap-covered walls 11' 4" (345.4 cm) high. Frieze installed at a height of 5' 5" (165 cm). Mrs. Bernard F. Gimbel Fund. © 2023 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Narrator: The artist Henri Matisse made The Swimming Pool in 1952, using paper painted with gouache. The work consists of nine panels installed adjacent to one another to form a broad horizontal band wrapping around most of the gallery’s perimeter. The band measures about six feet high and almost 54 feet wide. In metric units, it is about 185 centimeters high and over 1,600 centimeters wide.

This cut-paper composition features water, bathers, and sea creatures. It was originally designed by Matisse to adorn the walls of his dining room. At the time of the work’s creation, the artist had become less mobile and was no longer able to swim outdoors in the heat of the Mediterranean summer. He made this depiction of splashing silhouettes for his personal enjoyment, bringing the outdoors into his own living space.

The Swimming Pool is installed in a small, nearly square gallery constructed to replicate the size and shape of Matisse’s dining room. Light brown burlap covers the walls from the baseboards to the ceiling molding. The lighting is kept at a low level to protect the work of art.

The work itself takes the form of a nearly fifty-foot-long band, or frieze, mounted just above eye level on burlap. It travels around the four walls of the room, but is interrupted by a doorway and a similarly-sized gap on the opposite wall, breaking it into two segments.

The background is a long strip of white paper, about four feet high. It has discolored with age. Assorted shapes of blue painted paper are mounted onto the white paper band and sometimes beyond, onto the burlap. The ultramarine blue is not totally even, as it was painted onto the paper with a broad brush before the paper was cut into shapes and affixed to the background.

To explore the cutouts in more detail, let’s work our way clockwise around the gallery, starting facing the entrance, which will serve as 12 o’clock.

We first encounter curving forms that look like swimming bodies. They are not precise silhouettes of human figures, but rather, simplified shapes that stretch and curve to resemble heads, arms, torsos, and legs. Their orientation and curvature evokes movement.

Near the one o’clock corner of the room, a figure with a tiny waist plunges bottom first into the water with arms raised above their head. At two o’clock, a head and arm appear to breach the water’s surface as if swimming freestyle. Near three o’clock, several larger shapes suggest undulating bodies with arched torsos and moving limbs. Closer to four o’clock, the shapes become more boisterous and abstract, with two large forms bursting above the frieze onto the burlap. They evoke backs, legs, torsos, arms, buttocks, and breasts. But they capture movement—like diving or jumping into water—more than a direct representation of human form.

All along this half of the room, smaller shapes suggest displaced water, and at the five o’clock corner, a starfish hovers near the bottom of the white band.

Continuing to move clockwise, around the room’s perimeter to six o’clock and directly opposite the gallery’s entrance, is a niche containing a long cushioned bench.

When the frieze resumes the blue forms are still fractured and fragmented like reflections on rippling water. At seven o’clock, a six-pointed star shape reinforces the idea of fragmentation of light and water’s surface. Long, undulating hard-edged shapes fill the area between eight and ten o’clock, interacting with the negative space of the background to create a pattern of movement—an arm here, a ripple there.

Just before we complete the circuit of the room, approaching the eleven o’clock corner, the shapes again resolve into more recognizable forms. Two silhouetted bodies stretch out as though floating weightlessly on the surface of water.

Now let’s hear more about this work from a curator.

Curator, Jodi Hauptman: The story about the making of the pool is that Matisse and Lydia, his assistant, go to a pool. And they get there and it's boiling hot. And Matisse says, "I'm going to die here. We have to go home." And so he goes home and he says, "I'm going to make my own pool." And so he asks Lydia to line his dining room with white paper hanging at a height of approximately just above his head.

And then he begins to cut the forms and make this pool. And the work, as you experience it, there's this question about where you are. Are you under the water? Are you above the water? Are you in the water with the swimmers? So your position is oscillating. There's an oscillation between positive and negative, between human and animal because some of the figures look like human swimmers but they kind of look like fish also. There's the contrast between blue and white. So there's all these tensions that you're surrounded by. And there's this sense of the swimmers moving around you.

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