In 1908, Russian collector Sergey Shchukin commissioned Henri Matisse three large panels to represent dance, music and swimming. The latter has not been executed, but "Music" and especially “The Dance” was a declaration of the genius of Henri Matisse. Shchukin planned to decorate the hall of his Moscow mansion with these paintings. To Matisse it became the first major commission, so could finally say goodbye to the lack of funds.
A source of inspiration for Henri Matisse was the performance of Isadora Duncan, who broke with the official ballet school and filled dance with passion, emotion and fury. Matisse`s visit to the cabaret "Moulin de La Galette" with Farandole (Provençal folk dance) on stage, also contributed to the creation of the panel.
Matisse rejected the vagueness of the Impressionists. Here is how he described his work on the paintings for Shchukin: "We are committed to clarity, simplifying ideas. Integrity is our only ideal... We are talking about how to learn and, perhaps, to learn to paint in lines anew".
Technical means were kept to a minimum in this work, Henri Matisse was extremely laconic: the azure sky, emerald green of the hill, the flaming bodies. The human figures are generalized, we can paraphrase the artist`s famous quote "I do not paint women, I paint pictures" to see that Matisse does not paint the dancers here, he paints the dance. The naked bodies have something primitive and pristine in them. The dance appears as a grand pattern of existence, it overlapped the canvas to become an archetype, the myth of the dance. In front of us circling. With their hands linked, the five figures are rotating in a frenzied dance. They form a vicious circle charged with energy that is, seemingly, about to spark the canvas.
The paintings were exhibited at the Salon in 1911 and caused a stir. Furious and passionate nudity of the dancers, whose bodies merged in the ecstasy of dance, angered fans of classical beauties reclining on the sofas surrounded by the chubby putti. Nudity was not unusual, but the picture had more than just bodies in it: pure ecstasy, passion and sex splashed on the audience from this three-color painting with dancing figures. Shchukin had to ask Matisse to paint over some "shame". However. It could not hold back the emotional and sensual intensity of the painting.
A thrilling, exciting and alluring "Dance" by Henri Matisse was to be placed on the ground floor of Shchukin`s Moscow mansion. "Music" was supposed to balance the mood of the guest on the second floor with its calm, meditative, self-absorbed vibes. The same three colors, the same five figures are depicted no longer on the hill, but on the plain, they do not merge, but appear as individual characters, absorbed into themselves and the music. On the third floor, the collector wanted to put the panel depicting leisure, swimming and relaxing.
Matisse executed another version of “the Dance”, now located in New York Museum of modern art (MOMA). Raymond Eskola believed that in his second version of “The Dance” Matisse has surpassed the sensuality and Bacchante motives of the first version. However, most researchers agree that it is a sketch to the painting that was nationalized after the revolution and transferred to the Hermitage where it is kept today.
Matisse created another panel on the subject for the Barnes Foundation. It was 13 meters, and Matisse used the technique of decoupage there.