Although Henri Matisse is best known for his advances as an expert draftsman and experimental colorist, he executed some of the most radical sculptures of the twentieth century. Despite the relatively small size and limited range of his sculptural production, Matisse's three-dimensional works show undeniable departures in the treatment of the human figure and the handling of the surface. As one of the earliest works by Matisse to be created from memory and imagination rather than from a live model, Nu couch I (Aurore) is exemplary in its agitated surface, muscular distortions, and exaggerated torsion, elements which would continue to characterize Matisse's explorations in three-dimensional form.
The present sculpture of a reclining female nude represents an early incarnation of a subject that preoccupied the artist throughout his lifetime. While Matisse often included his early sculptures as still-life elements in later paintings, no other piece reappears as often as Nu couche I (Aurore). Matisse viewed his sculptural works as three-dimensional complements to his painted compositions, once stating",. . .I took up clay in order to rest from painting, in which I had done absolutely everything I could for the moment. It was to order my sensations, to seek a method that completely suited me. When I had found it in sculpture, I returned to painting" (J. Flam, op. cit., 1986, p. 192). The artist's assertion is nowhere more evident than in the evolution of Nu couche I (Aurore). While Matisse introduced this female figure during his Fauve period, she continued to reappear in his works over the next five decades, repeatedly translated among various media.
In Matisse's art, this recumbent woman initially emerged as one of the middleground figures in the painting Le bonheur de vivre, 1905-06 (fig. 1). An ambitious work of his early career, this canvas was his only painting exhibited in Paris at the Salon des Indpendants of 1906. Nu couche I (Aurore) reveals Matisse's reworking of this body posture in three-dimensional form, but it was not the artist's first sculptural incarnation of this nude female figure: he executed the clay model for the sculpture in Collioure in the winter of 1906-07 and cast it in bronze later that year. The clay figure was the source for Matisse's important painting Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra, 1907 as evident in the striking correspondence in the two poses (fig. 2). The account of the paintings genesis offered by Hilary Stirling in her recently acclaimed biography of the artist, however, not only delineates the details of the works' creation (and the sculpture's near destruction) but also reiterates the intimate connection between Matisse's painting and sculpture:
Catastrophe overtook Reclining Nude (I) Aurore in early January [of 1907]. Amelie [Matisse's wife], alerted by a crash followed by cries from the room above, rushed upstairs to find that the figure had slipped and smashed to pieces on the floor. Her solution was to remove her husband bodily from the scene of disaster. . .The next morning, even before he set about picking up the clay pieces, he recaptured the essence of the figure with heightened confidence on canvas (H. Stirling, op. cit., 1998, p. 374).
This symbiosis between the present sculpture and related painting produced a change in style: the thick encrustations of paint which dominate the surface of Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra are a notable departure from Matisses earlier practice of rendering smoother surfaces. This unprecedented surface treatment suggests a distinctly sculptural quality, and the painting achieves a new tactility, one that likely reflects its origin in the three-dimensional clay model. Similarly, the sculpture, according to Jack Flam, was "the most tactile piece of sculpture that he had done to date" (J. Flam, op. cit., 1986, p. 191). In these two works, Matisse rendered the solidness that he admired in Cezanne's paintings in both two- and three-dimensional form.
Flam has argued that, for Matisse, Nu couche I (Aurore) "marked a crucial turning point in his art" (J. Flam, "Matisse and the Fauves", in W. Rubin, ed., Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1984, p. 225). The present sculpture is significant in its fusion of European and African influences. The figure's tight chignon and classical pose revive Western models, while her relatively large head, round breasts, and full buttocks recall common features of African sculptures. (J. Flam, ibid, pp. 225-226). As Flam has noted, both Nu couche I (Aurore) and Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra employ the pose of the sleeping Ariadne, a figure well-known from Roman art who was associated with Venus, the goddess of erotic love. This particular position, with raised arm and crossed leg, has signified sensuality since the Renaissance. The subtitle of the present sculpture, "Aurore" or "Dawn" (Aurora in Italian), relates not to sleeping but to waking, making an allusion in both pose and name to the figure of "Dawn" included by Michelangelo in the Tomb of Lorenzo de Medici, Medici Chapel, San Lorenzo, Florence (fig. 3). Matisse's interest in Michelangelo is also reflected in his lithograph entitled rand nu, 1907 as the figure's pose approximates that of "Night" (Notte) on the Tomb of Giuliano de Medici located in the same chapel. In addition, Nu couche I (Aurore) and other works from the period evidence the artist's appropriation of a figure in Correggio's Jupiter and Antiope, 1524-25 (fig. 4), providing further evidence of Matisse's knowledge of, and sources in, Italian Renaissance art (c.f. J. Flam, op. cit., 1986, pp. 191 and 203).
At the same time, the present sculpture was one of Matisse's earliest works that was clearly influenced by African art. While the exotic vegetation in the background of Nu bleu: Souvenir of Biskra gives a hint about the scene's location, the painting's subtitle confirms the origin of Matisse's "memory". Biskra was an Algerian town on the border of the Sahara desert, both a military base and an emerging tourist spot; it was a burgeoning oasis that Matisse had visited on his trip to north Africa in the spring of 1906. During this sojourn, the artist solidified his interest in African art and acquired several sculptures and decorative objects, beginning a collection that he continued to augment upon his return to Paris. Inspired by these new treasures, Matisse modified the forms of his sculptures and incorporated these elements into his paintings.
Nu couche I (Aurore) not only marked an evolution in Matisse's style in 1907 but persisted at the forefront of his creative imagination. He first introduced the present sculpture into a series of still-lifes, such as Sculpture et vase persan, 1908 (fig. 5); Poissons rouge et sculpture, 1912; Les poissons rouges, 1912 (fig. 6); and Sculpture et vase de lierre, 1916, which depict the figure from a number of vantage points. These manifestations reinforce a primary impulse in Matisse's sculpture: instead upholding a frontal ideal, they propose multiple viewpoints. The present work also resurfaced as a sort of decorative sculpture, glimpsed above a waterfall and among the plants in the garden of La leon du musique, 1917.
Matisse returned to the present sculpture in the late 1920s, reworking its form in two additional pieces--Nu couche II, 1927 and Nu couche III, 1929--in which the body, in the reverse position with the right arm extended, becomes more abstract. Showing both greater frontality and less torsion, the forms of these later sculptures redirect much of the dynamism of the earlier version. In its last appearance, the pose of Nu couche I (Aurore) arose in a series of pasted paper cutouts that Matisse executed in 1952. He perceived these works as "drawings with scissors," adding that "cutting directly in color reminds me of a sculptor's carving in stone" (J. Elderfield, op. cit., p. 416). Matisse completed these renderings at a time when his failing eyesight no longer enabled him to paint. He visualized the development of forms in space and guided his hand across a sheet of paper. As in the artist's first experiments with the reclining nude in 1906-07, these late works reveal an ultimate synthesis: again the studio techniques of sculpture merge with the representational qualities of paintings.
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre, 1905-06. The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania.
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra, 1907. Baltimore Museum of Art.
(fig. 3) Michelangelo, Aurora, circa 1523.
Tomb of Lorenzo de Medici San Lorenzo, Florence.
(fig. 4) Correggio, Jupiter and Antiope, 1524-25.
Muse du Louvre, Paris.
(fig. 5) Henri Matisse, Sculpture et vase persan, 1908.
(fig. 6) Henri Matisse, Poissons rouges, 1912.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney.
Nu couch I (Aurore)
Signed and numbered 'Henri Matisse 5/10' (on the top of the base); stamped with foundry mark 'I. Constenoble Fondeur Paris' (on the right side of the base)
Venice, French Pavillon, XVI Biennale Internationale d'Arte di Venezia, May-September 1928, p. 201, no. 57.
Los Angeles, County Fair, Masters of Art from 1790 to 1950, 1950 (illustrated).
San Francisco, Museum of Art, 20th Anniversary Exhibition, 1955-1956. Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith College Museum of Art, One Hundred, May-June 1975, p. 77, no. 45 (illustrated, p. 33).
Height: 14 in. (35.5 cm.) Length: 19 in. (50.1 cm.) Depth: 10.7/8 in. (27.5 cm.)
Camera Work, July 1912, vol. XXXIX, pp. 22-23 (another cast illustrated).
P. Courthion, Henri Matisse, Paris, 1934, pl. LVIII (another cast illustrated).
L. Swane, Henri Matisse, Stockholm, 1944, fig. 53 (another cast illustrated).
I. Grnewald, Matisse och Expressionisme, Stockholm, 1944, p. 168 (another cast illustrated).
L. Swane, Matisse, Copenhagen, 1945, fig. 53 (terracotta version illustrated).
A.H. Barr, Jr., Matisse, his Art and his Public, New York, 1951, pp. 94, 100, 140, 179, and 193 (another cast illustrated, p. 337).
A.C. Ritchie, Sculpture of the Twentieth Century, New York, 1952, p. 59 (another cast illustrated).
C. Greenberg, Matisse, New York, 1953, pl. 32 (another cast illustrated).
R. Huyghe, Henri Matisse, Paris, 1953, pl. 32 (another cast illustrated).
P. Lbecker, Matisse, Copenhagen, 1953, pl. 32 (another cast illustrated).
D. Sylvester, "The Sculpture of Henri Matisse", The Listener, 29 January 1953.
G. Diehl, Henri Matisse, Paris, 1954, p. 53 (another cast illustrated).
M. Seuphor, La sculpture de ce sicle, dictionnaire de la sculpture moderne, Neuchtel, 1959, p. 23 (another cast illustrated).
H. Read, A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, London, 1964, fig. 33 (another cast illustrated).
M. Ogawa and I. Yanaihara, Matisse--Rouault, Tokyo, 1966, pl. 40 (another cast illustrated).
R. Escholier, Matisse, Paris, 1967, p. 165.
J. Guichard-Meili, Matisse, New York, 1967, pp. 168-170 (another cast illustrated, p. 168).
H.H. Arnason, History of Modern Art--Painting--Sculpture--Architecture, New York, 1968, pp. 103 and 114-115 (another cast illustrated, pl. 155).
A.E. Elsen, "The Sculpture of Matisse, Part I: A New Expressiveness in Sculpture", Art Forum, September 1968, vol. VII (no. 1), p. 21 (another cast illustrated).
A.E. Elsen, "The Sculpture of Matisse, Part II: Old Problems and New Possibilities," Art Forum, October 1968, vol. VII (no. 2), pp. 22 and 24-26 (another cast illustrated, p. 25).
J.-J. Lvque, Matisse, Paris, 1968, p. 12 (another cast illustrated).
"The Sculpture of Matisse", Life, 11 September 1970, p. 42 (terracotta version illustrated).
H. Read, "Le sculpteur", Hommage Henri Matisse, numero spcial de XXe sicle, Paris, 1970, pp. 122-123 (another cast illustrated). W. Tucker, "Four Sculptors, Part 3: Matisse", Studio International, September 1970, p. 84 (another cast illustrated, fig. 5).
M. Luzi and M. Carr, L'opera di Matisse dalla rivolta fauve all' intimismo, 1904-1928, Milan, 1971, pp. 108-109, no. S3 (another cast illustrated).
J. Elderfield, "Matisse Drawings and Sculpture", Art Forum, September 1972, vol. XI (no. 1), pp. 82-83 (another cast illustrated, p. 83).
A.E. Elsen, The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, New York, 1972, pp. 71-77 and 105 (another cast illustrated, figs. 89-91).
J. Jacobus, Henri Matisse, New York, 1972, pp. 25 and 54 (another cast illustrated, fig. 165).
J.-L. Daval, Journal de l'art moderne, 1884-1914, Geneva, 1973, pp. 201-202 (another cast illustrated).
W. Tucker, The Language of Sculpture, London, 1974, pp. 40, 91-91 and 96 (another cast illsutrated, fig. 84).
G. Marchiori, Sculpture moderne en France, Paris, circa 1975, p. 14 (another cast illustrated, pls. X and XI).
J. Elderfield, The "Wild Beasts"--Fauvism and its Affinities, New York, 1976, p. 118 (another cast illustrated).
R. Goldwater, What is Modern Sculpture, New York, 1976, p. 18 (another cast illustrated).
C. Duthuit, Henri Matisse, catalogue raisonn de l'oeuvre sculpt, Paris, 1977, pp. 74-77, no. 30 (another cast illustrated, pp. 75 and 77).
L. Gowing, Matisse, London, 1979, p. 71, no. 52 (another cast illustrated).
I. Monod-Fontaine, Oeuvres de Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Paris, 1979, no. 51 (another cast illustrated, p. 147).
P. Schneider, Matisse, New York, 1984, pp. 340, 348-349, 392, 394, 399, 416, 420, 431, 489, 493, 524, 536, 541, 544-545, 557, 562, and 566-567 (another cast illustrated, p. 546).
P. Schneider, M. Carr and X. Deryng, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Matisse, 1904-1928, Paris, 1982, fig. S3 (another cast illustrated).
N. Watkins, Matisse, New York, 1985, pp. 81-82 and 139 (another cast illustrated, p. 81, fig. 61).
J. Flam, Matisse: The Man and his Art, 1869-1918, London, 1986, pp. 191-192 (another cast illustrated, p. 192, fig. 187).
J. Guichard-Meili, Matisse, Paris, 1986, p. 58 (another cast illustrated).
J. Flam, ed., Matisse: A Retrospective, New York, 1988, p. 65 (another cast illustrated).
H. Herrera, Matisse: A Portrait, New York, 1993, p. 68 (another cast illustrated, p. 69).
H. Stirling, The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse, The Early Years 1869-1908, New York, 1998, p. 374.
Curt Valentin Gallery, New York (1949).
Buchholz Gallery, New York.
Frank Perls Gallery, Beverly Hills.
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1950.