The Backs were Matisse’s largest sculptures. Over twenty years he progressively refined the original pose, based on a woman leaning on a fence, until he achieved a massive simplicity.
Matisse’s decision to show the back view of a woman on such a monumental scale was unorthodox. By concealing her face, he avoided the complexities of visual engagement between artist and model. This helped him to consider the nude as an arrangement of forms that he could simplify and stylise. In the final sculpture, the modelling of flesh has given way to the massing of androgynous bulk and the gently curved spine has been replaced by an abstracted plait.
Although Back I had been exhibited in 1913, the series remained almost unknown until 1949–50 when the plaster Backs I, III and IV appeared in exhibitions in Paris and Lausanne. Back II was only rediscovered after Matisse’s death, while an even more naturalistic first version is now only known from a photograph. All were cast posthumously in bronze.