A Close Look at Henri Matisse’s Bather
Despite the apparent simplicity of Matisse’s 1909 painting, there’s more here than meets the eye.
Michelle Kuo, Anny Aviram
Jan 27, 2021
Henri Matisse. Dance (I). 1909
Matisse always wanted his paintings to look effortless and to achieve these effects of apparent simplicity during this period. But in reality, you can see how he labored exhaustingly to achieve what he called an “art of balance.”
An X-ray image of Bather
I do not repudiate any of my paintings but there is not one of them that I would not redo differently, if I had it to redo. My destination is always the same, but I work out a different route to get there.
Images of Bather taken using ultraviolet (left) and infrared (right) light
Bather, detail of figure’s head
Matisse is not painting an object, but the sensation of that object or that experience.
MK: To go back to the total composition, you see how everything is getting distributed. Your eye can never rest in one place. As you’ve noted so interestingly, Anny, the legs are cut off and then these waves of water are pulling down. I wondered if you could talk about the distribution of the blue and this lighter blue, which is a different pigment, right?
AA: When he mixes that ultramarine blue with a little bit of black, it appears to be a different color. He uses more pigment or he dilutes it. In the upper left corner, where you see the blue looking very light, he’s diluting the paint.
Bather, detail of figure's left leg
This was an opportunity for Matisse to really experiment and, in some ways, go for broke.
AA: Here [above], you see how thin the original canvas is because you see the threads going in different directions, and he applied the white priming layer very thinly. Then he applies this aquamarine blue, mixes it with white, and this area is complete. There are no changes. It is what it is. He wants to make a distinction: That’s the water. The rest is not the water. He does add some yellow and a tiny bit of red in very, very small amounts, just to shade the flesh tone of the body.
MK: He’s able to do so much with so little, such a limited palette, very few colors; and he even uses, as you’ve discovered, different types of sheen, areas alternating between matte and glossy, thickly worked paint and near translucence, to convey an astonishing range of volume and light and hue.
AA: The Bather is a small painting that allowed Matisse to experiment more. When he painted larger canvases, it was more difficult to experiment with so many details, because as you say, you have to always view those from a distance.
MK: Size and scale are so crucial to his work. The other thing that people say about him is that no matter the size of the picture that Matisse makes, it always feels big, buoyant. It’s part of that swelling or expansive sensation. I think you’re absolutely right—this was an opportunity for him to really experiment and, in some ways, go for broke.
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