Although Henri Matisse is best known for his advances as an expert draughtsman and experimental colorist, his early sculptural works are among the most revolutionary in the history of twentieth century art. Despite the relatively small size and limited range of his sculptural output, Matisse's three-dimensional works show an important advance for Modern art in the unique treatment of the human figure and the handling of the surface. It is important to note that over half the artist's sculptural output was executed between 1900 and 1909. At this time Matisse was not only developing his style and language of depiction, but he also had a fascination, which was to continue throughout his career, in exploring the relationship between the painted form and the sculpted plastic form.
This dialogue between the two media is exemplified by the frequent appearance of Matisse's sculptures in his painted compositions. Deux Négresses is no exception, and is included in his 1910 oil, Fruit et bronze (fig. 1). This became a means by which the artist could add a figural elements to the still-lifes he was most fond of painting at the time.
This same method of blurring the boundaries between "flat" and sculpted art may be seen in his 1907 oil study for La Musique (fig. 2). Here the pose of the figures in Deux Négresses is prefigured in that of the two struggling figures. This was itself a preparatory work on the musical subject later completely transformed into the monumental 1910 canvas La Musique, now in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
This influence of African art on the earliest artists of the 20th Century, led by the two titans of Modern art, Picasso and Matisse, is well documented. However it was Gertrude Stein that first observed this influence in writing, observing in 1933 that the two artists felt the effect of African sculpture in different ways, Picasso "more in his vision than in his imagination," and Matisse "more in his imagination than his vision" (G. Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Paris, 1933, p. 63).
As Jack Flam has noted, "...in 1906 Matisse was a much more 'advanced' painter than Picasso, and was the first to understand the structural implications of African sculpture. Matisse's enthusiastic discourse on the virtues of African sculpture doubtless gave Picasso much to think about and paved the way for his so-called revelation at the Trocadéro museum the following year" (J. Flam, op. cit., p. 174).
By the time he completed Deux Négresses in early 1908, Matisse had already been collecting African sculpture for two or three years (fig. 3). The influence it had on his own work is clearly evident. In both the subject matter and execution of Deux Négresses; in particular the exaggerated proportions of the buttocks, torsos and breasts are elements that take their principle source of inspiration from African sculpture.
Much of Matisse's enthusiasm for the art of Africa came from his trip to Algeria in the spring of 1906, the first time he had ever journeyed outside Europe. The intense light, rich colors and textures, which bombarded his senses for two week, remained forever ingrained on his creative imagination.
This relatively short stay in North Africa not only changed his artistic outlook for the future, but it also stimulated his growing interest in Primitivism. His travels to Algiers, Constantine, Botna and Biskra bolstered his interest in African art and while there acquired several sculptures and decorative objects. This was the beginning of a collection of African art which would continue to grow upon his return to Paris. Inspired by these new treasures, Matisse modified the forms of his sculptures and incorporated novel elements into his paintings, focusing increasingly on the human form, and specifically on nudes placed in landscapes and outdoor settings. The ferocity of the image, the economy of line and unswerving vitality of these African objects appealed directly to Matisse in his quest to extend the traditional boundaries of figurative art. The instant impact this new influence had on his sculptural output, it also resulted in the 1907 pivotal canvas Nu bleu; Souvenir de Biskra (Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection). In addition to the time spent in Africa, Matisse would also doubtless have been struck, like Picasso, by the extensive exhibition of Roman Iberian sculpture that took place at the Musée du Louvre in 1906.
It is worth remembering that Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, exemplifying the inspiration that Picasso also sought from African art, was completed in the spring of 1907, the year that Matisse began to work on Deux Négresses. According to Penrose "above all it is the rich variety and the vitality that radiates from Negro art that brought Picasso a new breath of inspiration [in which] he found the necessary support to transgress academic prohibitions, to exceed established measures, and to put aesthetic laws in question" (R. Penrose, Picasso, His Life and Work, London, 1958 on 1981 (according to Richardson), p. 54). Matisse and Picasso exchanged paintings the year Picasso completed Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and the interaction between the two artists and their fascination with Primitivism was to create a new direction for modern art.
The initial inspiration for Deux Négresses was derived, as with so many of his early sculptures, from a photograph. In this instance it was a staged, studio shot of two Tuareg women which Matisse had seen in an ethnographic magazine (fig. 4). The composition, while clearly based on the photograph, bears close resemblance to Gauguin's Deux Tahitiennes sur la plage (fig. 5). Deux tahitiennes was owned by Roderic O'Conor, the Irish artist and close friend of Gauguin, with whom he worked in Pont Aven before moving to Paris in 1904. It is easy to see the influence that pose of the figures in Deux Tahitiennes, with their solidly sculptural volume, had on Matisse's Deux Négresses
Matisse and O'Conor shared a mutual friend in the Bloomsbury Group artist and art critic Roger Fry, first meeting in Paris in 1903 when they exhibited in the inaugural exhibition of the Salon d'Automne, an exhibition in which they would take part annually thereafter. Indeed Matisse was to exhibit Deux Négresses in the 1908 Salon along with 12 other sculptures under the title Groupe de deux jeunes filles, a title that changed one year later to Deux Soeurs.
It is also a distinct likelihood that on one of his visits to Picasso's studio, Matisse saw the former's 1906 oil Deux Femmes nues (fig. 6), in which two female figures face each other, as if ready to embrace. In addition, Alfred Barr has noted that Matisse may have seen Picasso's Amitié of 1908, which had been bought by their mutual Russian patron the businessman, Sergei Shchukin, before it was sent to Moscow (A. Barr, op. cit., p. 538, note 6).
At first glance the two figures in Deux Négresses appear to be identical, however upon more careful observation of the interplay between them reveals a difference not only in pose, but also a difference in personality. One figure stands with legs together and solidly straight, while the other stands firmly with legs apart, giving her an emboldened presence. Viewed from one side the former figure has one arm straightened and by her side, somewhat submissively, and her other arm tenderly placed across the chest of her partner. Viewed from the other side however, the latter figure has a controlling arm around her partner's shoulder, and an almost aggressive hand on her own hip, attempting to dominate while at the same time remaining a protective presence. Observing the side profile however, gives the viewer yet another exchange between the figures. The two heads lean away from each other, and the modeling of the hair fools the eye into questioning the gender of one of the figures. This translates into a sensuality that is conveyed with an utmost degree of subtlety.
"Deux Négresses is Matisse's only sculpture group of figures, yet in a sense it is one figure, mirrored so that it can be seen from both sides at once, a symptom perhaps of Matisse's profoundly sculptural desire to create a work in the round which will hold its interest from any point of view. Actually, the figures are not identical in pose and seem to have been studied from different models. The thickset, rather rigid forms are powerfully and simply modeled with few traces of Rodin or the informal freedom of Matisse's fauve period sculpture" (ibid, pp. 138-139).
Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, in her text accompanying the 1984-1985 exhibition organized by The Arts Council of Great Britain, The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, recounts Meyer Shapiro's 1932 observations on Deux Négresses, "...the sculpture represents an attempt to transcend three-dimensionality and to achieve a total representation of a figure which is seen simultaneously and fully from behind and in front, a play between wrong side and right side, between mass and void, between opening and closure, an ambition which goes far beyond the exploitation of a pose."
Other casts of Deux Négresses may be found in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; The Baltimore Museum of Art; and the Musée Matisse, Nice.
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, Fruit et bronze, 1910.
Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, La Musique (esquisse), 1907.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
(fig. 3) Bakongo statuette (19th century, formerly in Matisse's collection).
(fig. 4) Magazine photograph of two Tuareg women, upon which the present work is based.
(fig. 5) Paul Gauguin, Deux Tahitiennes sur la plage, 1892.
Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii.
(fig. 6) Pablo Picasso, Deux Femmes nues, autumn 1908.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
PROPERTY OF AN AMERICAN COLLECTOR
Signed, stamped with initials and numbered 'Henri-Matisse HM 7/10' (on the top of the base); stamped with foundry mark 'C. VALSUANI CIRE PERDUE' (on the side of the base)
New York, C&M Arts, Henri Matisse: Sculpture, September-December 1998, no. 9 (illustrated, fig. 10; illustrated again in color).
Height: 18¼ in. (46.5 cm.)
A.H. Barr, Matisse: His Art and his Public, New York, 1951, p. 366 (another cast illustrated).
A.E. Elsen, The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, New York, 1972, p. 83 (another cast illustrated, figs. 104 and 105).
P. Schneider, Matisse, London, 1984, p. 548 (another cast illustrated).
H.H. Arnason, History of Modern Art, New York, 1986, p. 135 (another cast illustrated, fig. 180).
J. Flam, Matisse: The Man and his Art, 1869-1918, London, 1986, pp. 236, 238 and 241 (another cast illustrated, fig. 239).
J. Hobhouse, The Female Nude: The Image and the Artist in the Twentieth Century, London, 1988, p. 86 (another cast illustrated, fig. 73).
C. Duthuit and W. de Guébriant, Henri Matisse, catalogue raisonné de l'Oeuvre sculpté, Paris, 1997, pp. 92 and 94, no. 36 (another cast illustrated, pp. 92-93 and 95).
Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Ahrenberg, Stockholm; sale, Sotheby & Co., London, 7 July 1960, lot 25.
Biggins Gallery, London (acquired at the above sale).
Anon. sale, Sotheby & Co., London, 31 March 1965, lot 59.
Marlborough Gerson Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the father of the present owner, 1966.