Henri Matisse

Back I

c.1909–10, cast 1955–6

In Tate Modern

Henri Matisse 1869–1954
Original title
Nu de dos I
Object: 1899 × 1168 × 184 mm
Purchased 1955

Display caption

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sculpture, the modelling of flesh has given way to the massing of androgynous bulk and the gently curved spine has been replaced by an abstracted plait.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 in bronze after his death.

Gallery label, October 2016

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Catalogue entry

Henri Matisse 1869-1954

T00081 Nu de Dos I (Back I) c.1909-10

Inscribed 'Henri Matisse' b.l. and 'HM | 4/10' b.r.
Bronze relief, 74 1/2 x 46 x 7 (189 x 117 x 18)
Purchased from the artist's family (Grant-in-Aid and Knapping Fund) 1955
Prov: Sold by the artist's family to Lucien Lefebvre-Foinet, who later allowed it to come to the Tate as no other cast was immediately available
Exh: Matisse 1869-1954, Hayward Gallery, London, July-September 1968 (139, repr.)
Lit: Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Matisse: his Art and his Public (New York 1951), pp.142, 218, 539, and Additions and Corrections, repr. p.313; Albert Elsen, 'The Sculpture of Matisse, Part IV: The Backs and Monumental Decorative Sculpture' in Artforum, VII, December 1968, pp.24-32, repr. p.26; Jack D. Flam, 'Matisse's Backs and the Development of his Painting' in Art Journal, XXX, Summer 1971, pp.352-4, 361, repr. p.352; Albert E. Elsen, The Sculpture of Henri Matisse (New York 1972), pp.174-97, repr. pls. 246-7, 253

This relief was dated 1904 in the catalogue of the Matisse retrospective exhibition at the Maison de la Pensée Française in 1950, but Matisse subsequently told Alfred H. Barr, Jr., that it was done at the Boulevard des Invalides, where he had a studio and art school from the spring of 1908 until the summer of 1909. Mme Matisse believed, however, that it was made in the studio at Issy-les-Moulineaux to which they moved in the autumn of 1909. Although it has always been known in recent years as 'Back I', there was also an earlier version, signed by the artist and apparently complete, which has never been cast in bronze and probably no longer exists. It is known only from a photograph which, according to Mme Duthuit, was taken in 1909 before the clay was moved to the studio at Issy, as a record in case of damage in transit. It was less stylised than 'Back I', with a smoother, more flesh-like rendering of the back and legs. The probability is that 'Back I' was made from it, soon after Matisse's move to Issy.

At intervals between then and about 1930 Matisse made at least three further versions, all on the same scale (T00114, T00160, T00082). They form a regular progression from the comparatively naturalistic first state, still rooted in the 19th century, to the extreme simplification of his late style. According to Albert Elsen: 'For reasons of economy of time and effort Matisse reworked the successive "Backs" from plaster casts. He probably added clay to the plaster where the areas were to be built up, and as he cut this clay away he could have wiped it on the background, bringing figure and ground into textural accord' (The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, p.188).

The 'Backs I-IV', which are Matisse's largest and most monumental sculptures, have been cast in an edition of ten bronzes, plus a further cast for the artist's family. There are other complete sets in the Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris, the Kunsthaus, Zurich, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the University of California at Los Angeles.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.494-5, reproduced p.494


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