Matisse "The Back Series"

“…Maidens comfort you but to a certain limit –
Can’t go further than an elbow or a kneeline.”

Letters to The Roman Friend,
Joseph Brodsky, 1972

Matisse bas-relief sculptures of the woman figure looking in the same direction with the viewer and named as Back I, Back II, Back III and Back IV are currently exhibited as a part of permanent collection in Tate Modern. All four sculptures are displayed as a single body of work which make it easier for the viewer to think about differences and similarities between the pieces, therefore they were considered as a single art object for the purpose of this review.

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Though the sculpture was not the main expression medium for Matisse, it will be interesting to understand what was the driving force for the artist to create these pieces and how his developments in painting and sculpture were interconnected.

The analysis will be performed through the comparison between Matisse works and the works of his predecessors, followers, and especially his friends with the objective to find out similarities and define traces of modern tendencies in line with new forms of art emerging during Matisse’s lifespan.

All four sculptures are made as bas-relief images of a nude model leaning against the wall so the viewer observes them from the rear. They are very close to the real size of the model and have a solid monumental look.

Although some critics consider these four pieces as a series, according to M.Brenson (1989) they “were not shown together during the artist's lifetime, and we do not know whether Matisse intended them to be seen as a series”.

As described in J.Glausiusz (2010) review, “laser-imaging technology has … revealed” that “Matisse fashioned each new Back from a plaster cast of the previous one, adding or removing plaster to gradually transform the curving naturalism of the first Back into a more simplified, stocky form.”

Out of works known to the author, the most comprehensive analysis and comparison with Matisse contemporaries was done by the art historian Jack D. Flam in his work “Matisse’s Backs and the Development of His Paintings”. He reviewed all four pieces in great details and provided many interesting facts and artefacts to support his findings of the sources for each of the four sculptures.

Back I is the most realistic image out of four. The body lines are soft, following the natural look of a female body, the pose is calm with the body weight transferred to the left leg and the right leg is slightly bent. Overall the sculpture looks very similar to the painting, the background wall represents the canvas surface which is used to create spatial image.

Back II (1913-14), even though it is quite realistic as well, starts showing the abstract characters. The lines become more deep and sharp, the pose is largely the same but the figure starts its transformation towards simplification.

In Back III (1916-17) the author pays more attention for further simplification of the form and crystallisation of the image. The pose becomes more static and bending right leg now is almost fully straight so that the whole figure looks much more solid. The body is visually divided into three main blocks, where the head, hairs and the spine all represented as the single image. The overall pose now looks more substantial, losing to an extent the femininity and gracefulness of lines which are integral part of Back I and Back II image.

The separation between three parts of the body which started in Back III reaches its highest form of abstraction in Back IV (1930), still retaining the plasticity inherent to the previous copies. Left and right parts of the body acquire pillar-like shape where the head, hair and the spine become an important separating element between the two.

Though it is widely acknowledged by art professionals that Cezanne’s work “Three Bathers” was the main source of inspiration for Matisse in relation to his Backs series, surprisingly enough, the sculptural works of Matisse are not thoroughly discussed in the contemporary art literature, majority of the books on Matisse biography and his oeuvre do not include information about his sculptural studies and their interconnection with his paintings.

Thus according to Flam (1971) analysis, the Back I among other Backs is most closely related to the Cezanne’s “Three Bathers” which Matisse owned until 1936. It also got a lot of common characteristics with Matisse’s painting works of the earlier period between 1904-1909, the flourishing years of Fauvism, in particular, “Carmelina” 1903 and “Blue Nude” 1907.

Back II has more in common with Matisse’s painting of the same period around 1909-1913 such as “Bathers with the Turtle” 1908, “Mademoiselle Yvonne Landsberg” 1914, and “Madame Matisse” 1913.

Back III begins to bear abstract signs and similarities can be found with Gauguin's “Tahitian
Women”, Matisse’s “Portrait of Greta Prozor” 1916, “Woman on a High Stool” 1913-14, “Italian woman” 1915 and his “Bathers by the River” which Matisse also worked on during 1916-17.

Back IV is the masterpiece which characterises the future abstract developments of Matisse, in particular commonalities can be seen with his later works “Zulma” 1950, “Standing Blue Nude” 1952, and Barnes Foundation murals in USA, which was started in 1930 and completed in 1933 (Essers, 2016, p.66).

The main conclusion Flam (1971, p.360) makes is that “the first three Backs have a distinctive relationship to Matisse’s paintings” whereas the Back IV with it’s “simplification of forms and new structure was to have important repercussions in his later works, especially the late cut-outs” where “the total image is stronger than the sum of its parts”.

The influence of Cubism and in particular Picasso was nor clearly distinguished in connection to the Backs. Nevertheless, it is possible to trace certain similarities between Matisse’s Backs and Picasso’s painting and sculptural works of the same period, in particular his “Head of a Woman (Fernande Olivier)” painting of 1909 and “Head of a Woman (Fernande) sculpture done during the same year. Almost perpendicular lines, which compose the shape and are typical to Cubism style of Picasso can be seen both in Picasso works and also in Matisse Back II. They divide the area of waist and buttock, and also used for the construction of left hand and adjoining head and hairs. Cubism tendencies then continue to be present in Back III, but in the way how the 3-dimentional form has been modelled from many different flat areas, adjoining each other from the different angles.

The ‘Backs’ play an important part in formation of Matisse abstract style of his late years. They are magnificent example of his reflection of eternal but yet earthly female beauty erected into the new abstract form and deprived of all details and nuances where overall image can call for more powerful emotions than the detailed picture.


Brenson, M. (1989) ‘ART VIEW: Matisse’s ‘Backs’: Endless Beauty’. The New York Times, August 20, 1989. Available at (Accessed: 11.11.2016).

Cowling E. (2016) Picasso Portraits. London: National Portrait Gallery.

Davies, Penelope J.E. … [et al] (2007). Janson’s History of art: the western tradition. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.

Essers, V. (2016) Matisse. Köln: TASCHEN GmbH.

Flam, J.D. (1971) ‘Mattisse’s Back and the Development of His Painting’, Art Journal, Vol.30, No. 4 (Summer, 1971), pp.352-361.

Glausiusz, J. (2010) ‘Matisse’s Methods Revealed’, Nature, Mar 25, 2010, Vol.464(7288), pp.493-494.

Whitfield, S. (1996) Fauvism. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc.

Wilkin, K. (2007) ‘The Other Matisse’, The New Criterion, No. 7, March 2007, pp.41-5.