Matisse's genius for rendering the human figure in three-dimensions is beautifully exemplified by the remarkable bronze Deux Négresses. In this spatially intriguing composition, Matisse achieved a unique synthesis of formal rigor and sensuousness. By placing the two interlocked figures facing each other, the artist encourages the viewer to observe the work in the round, perhaps more so than in any other sculpture. At the same time, he emphasizes the voluptuousness of the two nudes, accentuating their female attributes. Their exaggerated anatomy reveals the influence of African art, which by this time Matisse had been collecting for several years, as a result of his trip to Algeria in 1906. At the same time, this treatment of the female body could be seen as Matisse's response to the latest creations of his lifelong friend and artistic rival, Picasso.
Deux Négresses is one of the most striking sculptures of Matisse's oeuvre, addressing Modernist questions that preoccupied him and his fellow avant-garde artists working in Paris in the early Twentieth century. Depicting two almost identical-looking female nudes locked in an embrace, in a pose where their figures mirror each other, this work explores the rendering of three-dimensional form in space. With the two women facing each other, the work questions whether we are looking at two figures, or at one figure rendered from different angles, a subject that became one of the pivotal points of Cubism. Furthermore, the image is based on a photograph of two Tuareg women published in an ethnographic magazine, and reflects the fascination that 'exotic', non-Western cultures had for Matisse, as well as for a number of other artists from this period, including Picasso, Modigliani, Gauguin and Brancusi.
At the time he executed the present work, Matisse systematically was using photographs as inspiration for his sculpture. Though his wife and professional models often sat for his oils, the artist often used magazines that provided him with themes and subjects other than those in his immediate environment. Rather than have live models stand or recline in unnatural poses for hours or days, he found in photographs a fresh source of inspiration that he could observe at length.
As Matisse himself wrote: "Photography can provide the most precious documents existing, and no one can contest its value from that point of view. If it is practiced by a man of taste, the photograph will have an appearance of art. But I believe that it is not of any importance in what style they have been produced; photographs will always be impressive because they show us nature, and all artists will find in them a world of sensations" (Matisse, published in Camera Work, 1908, reprinted in I. Monod-Fontaine, op. cit., p. 13).
Jed Morse wrote about the present composition in relation to the photograph: 'Two Negresses is the only sculpture in Matisse's oeuvre that includes more than one figure and, perhaps more than any other sculpture, highlights the variety of sources on which Matisse drew at the end of the first decade of the century in his efforts to surpass outmoded, nineteenth-century sculptural conventions. Although he had previously treated the subject of two women embracing in the paintings Le bonheur de vivre and Music (Sketch) (1907), the sculpture is based on a now well-known photograph of two Tuareg girls from a French ethnographic magazine. Matisse recreated the pose in the photograph, but with significant differences. In the sculpture, the anatomy is exaggerated and the figures are pared down to their essential forms, eliciting the exoticism and brutal formalism that Matisse found in African and ancient art. Matisse also shortened the girls' legs and increased their mass, giving the figures a solidity and structural strength that they lacked in the photograph and recalling the suggestion made to his students at the time to "consider this Negro model as a cathedral, built up of parts which form a solid, noble, towering structure"' (J. Morse in Matisse: Painter as Sculptor (exhibition catalogue), The Baltimore Museum of Art, 2007-08, p. 158).
Furthermore, Morse wrote about the composition of Deux Négresses: 'The position of the figures, standing side by side but facing opposite directions, gives the sculpture two fronts, aligned and planar, that emphasize its three-dimensionality by requiring the viewer to walk around the sculpture to view it entirely. This formal opposition subtly heightens a metaphorical duality: the figures stand as mirror reflections of each other, but their locked glance and the smooth, masculine head of one of them suggest a certain sexual ambiguity. A primitivizing formalism and exploration of duality can also be seen in works by Picasso, such as Two Nudes from 1906, the year Matisse was reported to have introduced the young Spaniard to African art' (ibid., p. 158).
As was the case with several of his favorite sculptures, Matisse incorporated Deux Négresses into a later oil painting. The first bronze cast of this sculpture was executed circa 1908 and, clearly fascinated by this image, Matisse depicted it in his still-life oil Fruits et bronze of 1910, where it appears against a colorful drapery, among still-life elements such as scattered pieces of fruit, a vase and a flower. This depiction of a bronze in situ reveals the artist's own appreciation of his three-dimensional works and their importance within the creative environment of his studio.
This work was executed in an edition of ten bronzes plus one artist's proof, all of which were cast during Matisse's life-time. Some of the other casts of this work are now in public collections including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris, The Baltimore Museum of Art and Musée Matisse in Nice.
Paris, Maison de la Pensée Française, Henri Matisse, Chapelle, Peinture, Dessins, Sculptures, 1950, no. 97
Height: 18 1/2 in. 47 cm Conceived in Collioure in 1907 and completed in Paris in 1908; this bronze was cast circa 1930 as number 7 in an edition of 10, plus 1 artist's proof.
Alfred H. Barr, Matisse: His Art and his Public, New York, 1951, illustration of another cast p. 366
Albert E. Elsen, The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, New York, 1972, figs. 104 & 105, illustrations of another cast p. 83
Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, London, 1984, no. 28, illustrations of another cast pp. 83-86
Pierre Schneider, Matisse, London, 1984, illustration of another cast p. 548
H. Harvard Arnason, History of Modern Art, New York, 1986, fig. 180, illustration of another cast p. 135
Jack Flam, Matisse: The Man and his Art, 1869-1918, London, 1986, fig. 239, illustration of another cast
Janet Hobhouse, The Female Nude: The Image and the Artist in the Twentieth Century, London, 1988, fig. 73, illustration of another cast p. 86
Claude Duthuit, Henri Matisse. Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre sculpté, Paris, 1997, no. 36, illustrations of another cast on the dust jacket and pp. 92, 93, 95, this cast listed p. 94
Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Ahrenberg, Stockholm (sale: Sotheby & Co., London, July 7, 1960, lot 25)
Biggins Gallery, London (acquired at the above sale)
Sale: Sotheby & Co., London, March 31, 1965, lot 59
Marlborough Gerson Gallery, New York.(acquired at the above sale)
Private Collection, U.S.A. (acquired from the above in 1966 and sold: Christie's, New York, November 6, 2001, lot 26)
Acquired at the above sale