Copper in the Arts

October 2010

Monumental Matisse Sculpture up for Auction at Christie's

Back IV BACK IV, HENRI MATISSE (1869-1954)
(NU DE DOS, 4eme état) Conceived circa 1930
Estimate: $25,000,000-35,000,000

Photograph courtesy of Christie's

Christie's recently announced its Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on November 3 will be led by Henri Matisse's Back IV, a monumental bronze from the most celebrated and ambitious sculptural series of this legendary artist's career. This marks the first time any bronze from this celebrate dscultpure series will be offered at auction, and this rare piece has an estimated sell price of $25 -$35 million. Widely recognized as a crowning achievement in 20th century modernist sculpture, Matisse's Backseries of four life-sized relief sculptures is featured in major museum collections around the world, including the Tate Gallery in London, MOMA in New York, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The upcoming sale marks the first time that any of these colossal bronzes has appeared at auction. Of the twelve bronze casts that were made of this culminating relief, the work to be offered is one of only two examples remaining in private hands.

"This is truly an unprecedented opportunity for the many collectors who recognize Matisse's Back series as a milestone in modern sculpture," said Conor Jordan, Head of Impressionist and Modern Art for Christie's Americas. "Over the course of 20 years, from Back I to Back IV, Matisse traced the gradual shift in our collective visual language from figuration to abstraction. With Back IV, the final sculpture in the most sustained project of his career, Matisse conceived a starkly powerful, singular expression of the human form that defined a new era in 20th century art."

Viewed together, the Backs afford vivid insights into Matisse's formal and thematic concerns at critical moments in his career. Matisse undertook the first bas-relief around 1909, using clay to sculpt a detailed, naturalistic rendering of a lone female figure viewed from behind, her left arm raised to grip the top of a wall or screen in front of her and her right arm twisted behind her. Though this initial version no longer survives, Matisse returned to the theme later that year to model in plaster the more muscular, articulated version that survives as Back I. In the following years, Matisse returned to re-work the female figure again and again with Back II around 1913 and Back III around 1916-17. With each new iteration of the motif, Matisse re-worked both figure and ground, adding plaster to some areas and removing it from others with chisels and hammers, gradually refining the previous state in search of the purest, most reductive manifestation of the female form.

Around 1930, more than two decades after he first undertook the challenge, Matisse conceived Back IV, his definitive statement on the theme that had preoccupied him for so many years. As the most starkly refined and highly architectural of the Back reliefs, Back IV divides the female form into three nearly symmetrical zones, with the woman's head, hair and spine fused into a startlingly stripped-down columnar figure at center of the work. Pleased with the outcome, Matisse kept a plaster cast of Back IV in his studio for the rest of his life, and scholars suggest that the reductive purity and spatial composition of the relief may have inspired some of Matisse's finest late-career paintings, including La grande robe bleue of 1937, now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Christie's, 20 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY, (212) 636-2000

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