The tradition of the female nude

Blue Nude reflects the long-standing tradition of the reclining female nude in Western art, dating back to the Renaissance. But this painting simultaneously rejects convention, for Matisse painted not the idealized female nude, but instead an anatomically distorted and harshly modeled figure. The curves of the woman’s body recall both the paintings of Paul Cézanne and the forms of African sculpture–two important influences on Matisse’s work during this period. [1]

The relationship between sculpture and painting

Matisse took the reclining pose of Blue Nude from a sculpture he had begun in the winter of 1906. Entitled Reclining Nude I (Aurore), this work was itself inspired by a nude female in his painting Le Bonheur de vivre (1905-06). [2] However, the sculpture suffered damage in the artist’s studio before it was complete, and rather than continue his work in clay, Matisse instead reexamined the subject in paint. [3]

At the Armory Show

Blue Nude was lent to the Armory Show by Gertrude and Leo Stein, and was displayed in Gallery H, a room dedicated to Fauve painting and the sculptures of Constantin Brancusi. [4] A recently rediscovered installation photograph reveals that Blue Nude was part of a powerful display, surrounded by Matisse’s Nude in a Wood (1906), Red Studio (1911), and Luxe II (1907-08). [5]

The response

Most viewers were unaccustomed to the artist’s radical use of vibrant color and expressive form. Like them, the press responded with hostility to his perceived disrespect for artistic tradition. They described his work as “distorted and toadlike,” [6] harshly criticizing the artist’s “misplacement of features and limbs,” as well as his “gross disorganization of color and of form.” [7]

Burned in effigy

The painting also traveled to the Chicago and Boston venues of the Armory Show, where it continued to incite controversy. In Chicago, it was one of three copies after Matisse’s works burned by students at the Art Institute. [8] Matisse’s works did not fare well in Boston either. One critic described the artist as having the “unimpaired vision of a little child…brought up in the most unfortunate surroundings, so vulgar do his things appear.” [9]

[1] Karen Levitov, Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore, exh. cat. (New York: The Jewish Museum, 2011), 19.

[2] This nude female figure is reclining in the right middle-ground of Matisse’s Le Bonheur de vivre (1905-06).

[3] After finishing Blue Nude, Matisse would complete the sculpture Reclining Nude I (Aurore) (1907). This work appears in a number of the artist’s painted still life compositions, including Goldfish and Sculpture (1912), also on view at the Armory Show.

[4] The Steins purchased Blue Nude from the 1907 Salon des Indépendants. See Kate Mendillo, “Chronology,” in The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, exh. cat. (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), 317.

[5] This photograph was originally published in the New York Tribune on February 17, 1913, page 7.

[6] Frank J. Mather, Jr., “Newest Tendencies in Art,” The Independent Magazine 74, no. 3353 (March 6, 1913): 512.

[7] Adeline Adams, “The Secret of Life,” Art and Progress 4 (April 1913): 928.

[8] “Cubists Depart; Students Joyful,” Chicago Daily Tribune (April 17, 1913), 3.

[9] “Boston,” American Art News 11, no. 29 (May 3, 1913): 4.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

The French artist Henri Matisse is primarily identified with Fauvism, the early-twentieth-century avant-garde movement characterized by expressive use of non-representational color. His work was first shown in New York by Alfred Stieglitz, who mounted exhibitions of his drawings, watercolors, prints, and sculptures at his 291 gallery in 1908, 1910, and 1912. [1] But when the Armory Show presented thirteen of his most vibrantly colored paintings to a broad audience, viewers were overwhelmingly shocked, surprised, and threatened. The primitivism, distorted forms, erratic color, and crude technique of Matisse and his fellow Fauves seemed like a deliberate step backward, “wanton perversity” in the words of one critic. [2] Writing in The International, reviewer J. Nilsen Laurvik aptly summarized the critical response: “It was a long step from Ingres to Matisse, but a very short step from Matisse to Anger.” [3]

Antagonism to Matisse’s work peaked when the Armory Show traveled to its Chicago venue. On April 17, 1913 a group of students at the Art Institute held a mock trial for “Henry Hair Mattress.” Charging him with “artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line, general esthetic aberration, and contumacious abuse of title,” he was found guilty and sentenced to death. [4] Although the students planned to burn Matisse in effigy, instead they set ablaze copies of his “monster pieces,” including Le Luxe II, Goldfish and Sculpture, and Blue Nude.

[1] These exhibitions included just one painting—Nude in a Wood (1906), lent by the artist George Of, which was shown in 1908. Of had purchased the painting from Galerie Druet in Paris in 1907 and also lent it to the Armory Show. See Janet C. Bishop, “Sarah and Michael Stein, Matisse, and America,” in The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, Janet C. Bishop, Cécile Debray, and Rebecca A. Rabinow, eds., exh. cat. (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2011), 133.

[2] “Ultra Moderns in a Live Exhibition at 69th’s Armory,” New York Evening Mail, February 17, 1913, 8.

[3] J. Nilsen Laurvik, “New Paths in Art, Apropos: The International Exhibition of Art,” The International 7, no. 4 (April 1913): 88.

[4] “Cubists Depart; Students Joyful,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 17, 1913, 3.

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