As we’ve previously examined in an earlier post, French Fauvist and Impressionist, Henri Matisse, created a series of historic murals at the Chapelle Du Rosaire (Chapel of the Rosary), sometimes referred to as the Matisse Chapel or the Vence Chapel, in the small town of Vence on the French Riviera. Matisse himself described the work as his “masterpiece” and despite his advanced age, being 77 at the time when the project began in 1947, he worked diligently on it for more than four years, until the building of the chapel and Matisse’s decoration was completed in 1951. In addition to the three great murals that Matisse created, St Dominic, Virgin And Child and Station Of The Cross, he also worked on the chapel’s architecture, stained glass windows, interior furnishings and the vestments for the priests.

What may perhaps not be widely known is that Matisse had actually created another iconic mural almost 20 years earlier in 1932. The mural came about after Matisse met Albert C. Barnes, an American chemist who made his fortune after developing the gonorrhoea antiseptic drug Argyrol. Delightful stuff. By his late thirties Barnes had begun to devote himself to the appreciation and collection of modern art, mingling with the Steins in Paris and using his wealth and his eye for a bargain to develop an immense collection of valuable works. He even boasted about capitalising on the misfortune of others during the Great Depression, saying, “my speciality was robbing the suckers who had invested all their money in flimsy securities and then had to sell their priceless paintings to keep a roof over their heads.”

Barnes had been a long time collector of Matisse’s work (The Barnes Foundation now houses 59 of Matisse’s canvases), and when he met him in the US in 1930 he requested the artist to accept a commission from him to create a mural. Matisse was already 61 years old at the time, he was well established and wealthy and he hadn’t created a decorative work in almost 20 years - however the commission from Barnes seemed to reinvigorate the artist and it kick-started a period of bolder simplification in his work. As opposed to completing the mural onsite, Matisse chose to work in his native France, creating the triptych mural on canvas measuring a colossal 48 feet by 12 feet.

The work was completed in April of 1932 and, clearly inspired by his 1910 work Dance, featured grey nudes dancing on a background of diagonal colour blocks. Titled The Dance II, the work had been intended to be positioned between three arches at Barnes’ Pennsylvania estate, but unfortunately as it turned out, Matisse’s work was a few feet short of the required measurements. And so Matisse returned to his studio and began to work on the murals from scratch, cancelling an intended exhibition of the works in Paris, and sending the completed, resized works directly to Barnes in May of 1933. Instead of creating three separate works for each of the three arches, Matisse devised a single, free-running, dynamic image and it took Matisse and Barnes two weeks to place and stretch the murals to ensure that the canvases worked to created a cohesive image together. The Dance II mural now hangs at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia as part of a collection of fine art valued at around $25 billion.