Henri Émile Benoît Matisse was a leading figure in 20th-century art. Although he was primarily known as a painter, he also worked as a printmaker, draughtsman, and sculptor. Born in France, Matisse was passionate throughout his career about non-European art and design, and frequently incorporated aspects of Asian and African art and culture in his work. Like many of his Modernist contemporaries, Matisse revolted against the French Academy’s classic standards of beauty by adopting more Modernist approaches in his painting and sculpture.
Phillip Rosenbach purchased the two sculptures seen here, Standing Nude and Figure with Cushion, in 1928 at the Venice Biennale, also known as the International Art Exposition. Both figures are classic subjects: the contemplative, standing female nude and the female nude in repose. In these sculptures, however, the subjects appear differently than would have been customary in classical European design; one with conical, pointed breasts and jutting buttocks reminiscent of Algerian sculpture and the other with a more powerful and sexual physique. Both figures suggest masculine as well as feminine qualities as evidenced in their musculature.
Matisse completed most of his work in sculpture between 1900 and 1906. As much as he loved this style and medium, it was not profitable, so he discontinued making sculpture for several years. Michael Stein (brother of Gertrude Stein) and his wife Sarah Stein, both collectors and patrons, were previous owners of Figure with Cushion. These Matisse sculptures are the sole Modernist works in this medium collected by the Rosenbach brothers. The Rosenbach also has in its holdings Matisse-illustrated editions of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1935).
Matisse’s interests also extended to African-American art and culture; the artist visited New York in the 1930’s, meeting key figures in the Harlem Renaissance. His famous Jazz prints further reflect Matisse’s multicultural inspirations. Just as Matisse brought multiple influences to his artistic work, in her literary production, critical work, and teaching Alice Dunbar-Nelson studied, learned from, and emulated the European literary canon as well as the rich tradition of African-American literature, advocating for an approach to the advancement of African-American writing that situated it within a wider literary tradition. Learn more by visiting the “I Am an American!” exhibition section More Than a Vocation: Teaching and Education.