Henri Matisse’s Blue Nudes is a series of four lithographs of nude female figures made using his cut-out technique in blue painted paper. The Blue Nudes exemplify the last stage of Matisse’s life and the culmination of his life-long artistic quest. In this article, Singulart examines the Blue Nudes and Matisse’s revolutionary cut-out technique and takes a closer look into the artist’s life.
Who was Henri Matisse?
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was a French artist, renowned as a draftsman, printmaker, sculptor and painter. Matisse was born in Northern France and was the oldest son of a wealthy grain merchant. He grew up in Picardie and in 1887 moved to Paris to study law and worked as a court administrator in Le Cateau-Cambresis. He began to paint in 1889 after his mother bought him art supplies to entertain him while he was recovering from appendicitis. Matisse described the experience of painting as “a kind of paradise” and it was then that he decided to become an artist. Matisse studied at the Academie Julian in Paris from 1891 and was a student of Bouguereau and Moreau. His early works were traditional still lifes, influenced by a wide range of artists, from Manet to Chardin. In 1896 Matisse, an unknown student at the time, was introduced to Impressionism and the work of Van Gogh, by the Australian painter John Russell, who also taught him about color theory which had a profound effect on the development of Matisse’s style.
Matisse had a daughter with his model Caroline Joblau in 1894 and in 1898 he married Amelie Noelie Parayre with whom he raised Marguerite and their own two sons. The same year as his marriage, Matisse traveled to London and Corsica and worked profusely. He was also an avid collector of other artists’ works and his personal collection included pieces by Rodin, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne.
Blue Nudes Series and the Fauvist Movement
Matisse was one of the leaders of the Fauvist movement alongside André Derain. As he developed this neo-impressionist, expressive style, Matisse’s success grew and his reputation spread. In 1905, he traveled to the South to work with Derain in Collioure and his work began to embrace flat shapes, controlled lines and a more fluid brushstroke. In the same year he exhibited with the Fauves at the Salon d’Automne. The Fauvist movement was controversial and was met with strong reactions. At the Armory Show in Chicago in 1913, Matisse’s painting Nu bleu was burned. Despite dividing opinions at the time, today most of what are considered to be Matisse’s great masterpieces were painted during his Fauvist period.
In 1917, Matisse moved to the French Riviera were his style softened, in line with the Post-War Neoclassical trend. This period of Matisse’s work is characterised by the theme of the oriental odalisque. After surgery for abdominal cancer in 1941, Matiss was left unable to walk or stand which significantly hindered his creative process. He began to create large scale paper cut-out collages with the help of his assistants. His most famous cut-out work was the book Jazz, created in 1943. In 1948, Matisse applied this technique to the design of the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. Matisse died of a heart attack in 1954, aged 84.
Blue Nudes Series and the Cut-Out Technique
In 1952, one of Henri Matisse’s most productive late years, he created a series of blue color lithographs using his cut out technique, titled Blue Nudes. The four nude female figures are portrayed in different poses and exemplify the collage technique that Matisse developed in his later life, after he was no longer able to paint or sculpt after surgery for abdominal cancer.
In deep blue against a white background, the Blue Nudes appear deceptively simple but took numerous studies and weeks of laborious cutting and arranging to create the perfect form. With his Blue Nudes, Matisse achieved his aim “to draw in paper.” The paper was pre-painted with blue gouache by his assistants before Matisse “drew” the forms with his scissors and then assembled the figures. The poses are thought to be derived from those in Matisse’s fauvist masterpiece The Joy of Life and continue his exploration of the theme of the female form that was an important subject throughout his career.
Matisse chose the color blue to represent volume and distance and despite the flatness of the paper, Matisse creates a sense of relief in the cut-outs by overlapping the shapes. Indeed, Blue Nude I is thought to be reminiscent of his 1909 sculpture, La Serpentine. The figures also show influences of Matisse’s interest in African and specifically Tahitian sculpture, which he collected during his travels. Matisse’s Blue Nudes are the result of his lifelong quest to create “an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.”