‘Blue Still Life’ (1907), by Matisse
‘Blue Still Life’ (1907) © Barnes Foundation Archives

“There is no use entering into a pissing contest with a skunk,” the director of the Philadelphia Art Museum complained of his Pennsylvania neighbour, the chemist and entrepreneur Albert Barnes who started collecting art in the 1910s. With a sharp eye, a brutal manner and a swollen cheque book, Barnes had by the 1930s amassed more paintings by Cézanne, Renoir and Matisse than anyone else in the world. Then he locked them up in a mausoleum-like building in suburban Merion, refused most requests to visit, never loaned and only allowed occasional black-and-white photography.

Loathed as dishonourable, arrogant and narcissistic, Barnes played however one pivotal role as a patron. In 1930, on his first meeting with Matisse, he commissioned a mural for a treacherous space at his new museum, to fill three awkwardly shaped lunettes between arches set in terrible light under the vaulted ceiling of a high hallway. “Paint whatever you like, as if you were painting for yourself,” Barnes said. The result was “The Dance”, a monumental piece which, in its return to an abstracting method of composition abandoned by Matisse in 1917, and in the artist’s first use of paper cut-outs, determined the radical future of his oeuvre, and had therefore a lasting impact on 20th-century painting.

“The Dance” remains modernism’s least familiar masterpiece: Barnes’ iron-fisted will ensured that after his death, restricted access to his Foundation prevailed, and it was not until 2012, when the museum’s trustees succeeded in taking a controversial decision to relocate to downtown Philadelphia, that its glories have begun to become better known. A huge welcome, then, to the magnificently produced, deeply scholarly, biographically engrossing three-volume Matisse in the Barnes Foundation, edited by Yve-Alain Bois and published on Friday, as part of the move to broaden understanding of Barnes’s unrivalled collection.

‘The Dance’ (1932-33), by Matisse
‘The Dance’ (1932-33) © Barnes Foundation Archives

For $900 in 1912, Barnes acquired from Leo Stein the Fauvist “The Sea Seen from Collioure”. Thereafter he cherry-picked more than 50 Matisses, many marking key moments of invention: “Le Bonheur de vivre” (1905-06), whose sinuous arabesques and irregular patches of colour fused with classical Arcadian idyll announce Matisse’s defiant hybrid stylisation; the strongly patterned, flattened portrait “Red Madras Headdress” (1907); “The Music Lesson” (1917), where nervous linearity and jarring spatial dislocations set stifling domesticity against a voluptuous nude statue and landscape shimmering beyond the interior. Lavishly exploring such works, Bois’ catalogue puts the Barnes Foundation on the global map as a mecca for Matisse lovers.

Matisse was 60 when he met Barnes, and in crisis: he had been unable to paint for a year, knew that he no longer ranked as a cutting-edge member of the avant-garde and, in search of fresh inspiration, had just taken an unsuccessful journey to Tahiti: “One dies of boredom in Paradise. Accomplished absolutely nothing.” So when Barnes offered a modest $30,000 for a wall painting that would take a year, he seized the chance because “although there’ll be no profit in it for me, this work will have important consequences”.

A delight of his initial visit to Merion was seeing again “Le Bonheur de vivre”. This painting had sparked his sole previous mural commission, the raw, primitivist terracotta/green/blue “Music” and “The Dance” for Sergei Shchukin’s Moscow palace in 1910. Now — “I’m getting to an age when it’s good to take advice from one’s youth” — he returned to the simplified motif of a circle of dancers, planning for Barnes a version three times bigger, which would absorb and demonstrate all he had learned since.

From the Barnes archive, some hundred photographs of sketches and work-in-progress reproduced here document in unprecedented detail Matisse’s battle with the mural. Almost as many letters exchanged between wary artist (“I cannot give you an idea of the composition, as I give myself the right to modify it right up to the last day”) and bullying collector (“YOU HAVE MADE AN ENORMOUS MISTAKE”) amplify a story of patronage as well as creativity.

Albert Barnes and his dog in 1942, in front of ‘Red Madras Headdress’ (1907)
Albert Barnes and his dog in 1942, in front of ‘Red Madras Headdress’ (1907) © Barnes Foundation Archives

The cover of each volume has the heroic image of Matisse drawing the immense leaping, plunging, thrusting figures for “The Dance” on to canvases twice his height, using a stick of charcoal tied to a bamboo pole. André Masson compared the giant pointer to a magician’s wand, conjuring heads, arms, legs in surges of energy, with fragments dissolving and reforming in fluid combinations suggestive of film.

Yet, in situ, Matisse wanted these light and graceful grey forms, their silhouettes curving in accordance with the architecture and echoing its colour, to look “rigid things, heavy as stone”. To achieve this architectonic splendour, Matisse worked all day in a garage in Nice that had the proportions of Barnes’ hallway. To keep lithe, his acrobatic model Lisette endured a strict diet and regime of exercise (but no swimming, in case she became sunburned). At a moment of uncertainty Matisse drove to Padua to examine Giotto’s frescoes.

Returning in autumn 1931, he adopted a new method: on stacks of paper painted in flat grey, and black, pink and blue for the background, he redrew the design, outlining shapes that were then cut out with scissors, pinned, shifted and repinned on to canvas. This allowed countless compositional changes to the whirling figures that seem to extend into infinite space on the wall-scale work, while the flat tones without any gradation ended all trace of the illusionism governing Matisse’s work from 1917-29.

A year in, “The Dance” was nearing completion when Matisse realised he had miscalculated the measurements by a metre. Barnes crossed the Atlantic in fury; Matisse began again on a larger version, increasing the number of figures and now working faster, and with a frenzy yet assurance that determined the spontaneous, almost out-of-control character of the final mural. “I even produced a work with a different spirit: the first is warlike, the second Dionysian,” he explained.

Matisse sitting in the Barnes Foundation in Merion in 1933 gazing at his ‘The Music Lesson’ (1917)
Matisse sitting in the Barnes Foundation in Merion in 1933 gazing at his ‘The Music Lesson’ (1917) © The Morgan Library & Museum

Matisse sailed for America in May 1933 with “The Dance” packed in a crate. It was installed the day after he arrived, in an atmosphere so fraught that he had a minor heart attack — Barnes revived him with whisky. “It has a splendour you can’t imagine without seeing it,” the artist wrote home.

He never saw it again: when he tried days later to arrange a second viewing, Barnes had shut up his Foundation and left Pennsylvania. Visitors subsequently turned away included Le Corbusier and T S Eliot. Barnes, Matisse concluded, “is a monster of egoism [but] what counts is that he gave me the chance to express myself on a grand scale”.

Chronicling how he did that, no art history published this year has more triumphantly combined erudition with pleasure.

‘Matisse in the Barnes Foundation’ edited by Yve-Alain Bois, Thames & Hudson, £165. barnesfoundation.org

Photographs: The Morgan Library & Museum; Barnes Foundation Archives; ©Succession H.Matisse/ARS

Letter in response to this article:

Barnes regarded artists as heroic fountains of wisdom / From David R Sorensen

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