After 1948 Matisse was prevented from painting by ill health but, although confined to bed, he produced a number of works known as gouaches découpées. These were made by cutting or tearing shapes from paper which had been painted with gouache. The shapes were placed and pasted down by an assistant working under Matisse's instruction. Some of the later ones, such as The Snail, were of very large dimensions. The technique, explored in his picture book Jazz (published 1947) and other works, opened up new possibilities for him. Matisse said of the technique that it 'allows me to draw in the colour. It is a simplification for me. Instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it - the one modifying the other - I draw straight into the colour' (quoted in Amis de l'art, October 1951).
His secretary Mme Lydia Delectorskaya described the making of The Snail (letter to the Tate Gallery, 30 March 1976):
The Snail was made in the Hôtel Régina at Nice. H. Matisse had at his disposal sheets of paper painted in gouache by assistants, in all the colours he used for the 'papiers découpés'. A background of white paper - of the dimensions indicated by H.M. - was put on the wall and the assistant pinned onto it the pieces of gouached paper which H.M. passed to him indicating exactly where they should be placed. When H.M. decided that his composition was finished, it was lightly stuck to the background. The panel was taken down when H.M. needed the wall for a further work. When later on it was sent to Lefebvre-Foinet [in Paris] to be pasted down, before anything was moved, an extremely precise tracing was made to ensure that no changes were made in the composition, not even by so much as a millimetre.
Matisse's daughter Mme Duthuit said that her father made many drawings of snails at this time and that the idea for this work came out of these. The concentric pattern formed by the coloured shapes in the centre of the work echoes the spiral pattern found in the snail's shell. Matisse told André Verdet (pp.64-5), 'I first of all drew the snail from nature, holding it. I became aware of an unrolling, I found an image in my mind purified of the shell, then I took the scissors'. He has combined pairs of complementary colours - red/green, orange/blue, yellow/mauve - to create a particularly vibrant effect. He gave the picture the alternative title La Composition Chromatique [Chromatic Composition].
André Verdet, Prestiges de Matisse, Paris 1952, pp.64-5
John Jacobus, Henri Matisse, London 1973, p.180, reproduced p.154 in colour
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.500-02, reproduced p.500