Although Matisse’s sculptural oeuvre contains 744 bronzes, only ten plaster casts are known to exist today. Of these, three are casts of Madeleine I, which was originally conceived in 1901 (see fig. 1). The irregularities of the mold lines in the bronze versions of the work and the present plaster cast suggest that the piece molds were made over the clay model, probably by Matisse himself, who was still relatively poor at the time and might not have been able to hire a professional mold maker as he would later in his career.
This method allowed him to preserve the sculptural form even as he continued to work on the original clay in order produce a second version of the sculpture, Madeleine II, completed in 1903 (see fig. 2). Around 1925, he then went to a professional mold maker who executed the original plaster intended to be cast in bronze by Valsuani.
Matisse’s unique practice of casting multiple plaster versions of a work during progressive stages of his creative process culminated in several major sculptural series in his career—the Jeannettes, the Henriettes and the Backs, for example—through which the artist’s creative vision and the documentation of its evolution are presented as a work of art itself alongside the final casts. This celebration of the artist’s process is an inherently modern idea, one shared by Matisse’s contemporaries like Auguste Rodin.
Matisse’s exploration of the female nude as a subject matter in the Madeleine series places him in a long line of artists in the European canon fascinated with the form of the female figure since Antiquity. The almost identical modeling and positioning of the figure in the present work and Matisse’s Nude Study in Blue (see fig. 3), painted a year or two before the conception of Madeleine I, suggests that the young artist may have turned to sculpture as a way to further his exploration of the human figure beyond the limits of the two-dimensional canvas.
In this plaster cast, as in the bronze versions of Madeleine I and II, Matisse emphasizes the overall S-shaped line of the female figure, as well as her contrapposto stance. As Oliver Shell writes: “[Matisse] accentuates all of the consequences of the weight-bearing leg, which tilts the figure's pelvis and produces a series of pronounced and subtle counterbalanced bodily shifts. Although the figure does not technically move, it is animated by an internal spiraling rhythm that Matisse referred to as the arabesque. Comparing himself to his friend the sculptor Aristide Maillol, Matisse would write, 'Maillol, like the Antique masters, proceeds by volume, I am concerned with arabesque like the Renaissance artists.' In linking his own sculptural sources to the Renaissance, Matisse may well have been thinking of Michelangelo's Bound Slave and Dying Slave (see fig. 4), works he knew intimately from his daily visits to the Louvre as a student of Gustave Moreau" (Oliver Shell in Matisse: Painter as Sculptor (exhibition catalogue), The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, 2007-08, p. 114). The visible traces of the artist’s process, evident in the presence of mold lines and the tactile nature of the work, imbue the figure with a sense of movement, as if the sculpture embodies the artist’s own creative energy.
One of these plaster casts was exhibited at the 1904 Salon d’Automne in Paris, but it is interesting to note that Matisse would not exhibit a bronze Madeleine before the 1930s. Today, the other two examples of plaster casts of Madeleine I are in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux and the Raymond & Patsy Nasher Collection in Dallas.
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