Nu bleu IV, 1952 by Henri Matisse

Nu Bleu IV is Matisse's most elaborate figure study in gouache decoupee, with the exception of the Barnes mural studies, Precursor B, which were not intended as independent works. Following his liturgical designs for the Vence chapel, Matisse returned to the human figure in this traditional and familiar pose, stressing both the decorative alignment of limbs and the compact sculptural mass. Although he had used this pose throughout his career in numerous paintings, and particularly in sculpture, Matisse apparently felt compelled to renew his understanding of the nude figure before attempting to render it in terms of cut and pasted paper. To this end he made numerous drawings in pen, pencil, and colored pencil of the seated nude - relating the parts of the figure to one another and to the proportions of the sheet of paper.

Matisse kept a sketchbook of drawings which were the preliminary sketches for the blue nude types. The drawings from this important carnet are now dispersed, but a facsimile edition was issued by Galerie Huguette Beres and Berggruen et Cie, Paris in 1955. The order of Matisse's drawings in this sketch book appears to be chronological and allows one to follow his first thoughts and elaborations of the blue nude theme. For example, the first drawing shows a seated female nude with her right arm extended, a pose unique in the sketch book but the very one with which Matisse apparently began Nu bleu IV. The second sketch book drawing, however, poses the nude with the bent right arm, which Matisse retained not only for the rest of the blue nude drawings in the carnet but for the four cutouts, themselves. The photograph of the early state indicates the many changes Matisse made in this cutout, changes made with both charcoal and cut paper which remain visible in the final work and give it a labored appearance found only in a few other cutouts. Matisse's assistant has recalled that Nu bleu IV demanded so many adjustments that it occupied Matisse for some two weeks.

The same documentary photograph records that Nu Bleu IV evolved not on the studio wall but on an easel. This suggests that Matisse worked on it at close range, directly, adding and deleting bits of paper to refine the curve of a contour just as he had previously modeled with clay. Having patiently worked out the pose here, he then proceeded to the three variants, which he completed with relative ease.

The unusual preparations for Nu bleu IV underscore its intimate relation to Matisse's work in sculpture. Direct ties to the living model are most clear in this cutout, particularly the articulation of weight and the prominent biomorphic toes, a detail Matisse eliminated in the more schematic blue nudes that followed. That Matisse retained these toes in the final state of Nu Bleu IV suggests that the cutout was well-advanced when he temporarily put it aside and that it was probably not extensively reworked when he took it up again.