First State: Bathers by a River
Bathers X-radiograph

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First state,
March–May 1909

The first state of the painting is connected to the 1909 commission for decorative panels in Sergei Shchukin’s home that would eventually result in Dance II and Music (1910; The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), although the theme of bathers was central to Matisse’s original scheme. The X-radiograph reveals the earliest forms of four figures surrounding a waterfall and stream. Cross-sections indicate that the original palette was very similar to the watercolor Composition No. II, which he sketched for his patron. That work illustrates the artist’s earliest conception of the painting as a lush landscape with waterfall. Another sketch made soon afterward allows us to trace Matisse’s evolving thoughts about the composition.

Composition No. II, c. 1909.

Composition No. II, c. 1909. Watercolor on paper. The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Matisse sent this watercolor to Shchukin in mid-March to share his initial idea for a painting. We can see five women relaxing near a waterfall, nestled within a verdant, hilly landscape. Two bathe in the water, which the artist described in blue with pink highlights. Initial ink lines that Matisse sketched but later abandoned help us follow his ideas for the figures, whose poses recall those he used in earlier works.

Drawing on verso of letter, c. March 1909.

Drawing on verso of letter, c. March 1909. Ink on paper. Archives Henri Matisse, Paris.

After receiving Composition No. II, Shchukin asked Matisse to avoid nudes in the commission. This working sketch demonstrates how the artist revised his bathers compositions, dressing the two flanking bathers in loose drapery, turning the woman in the stream fully away from the viewer, and reducing the total number of figures from five to four. Ultimately, Shchukin would request an image of music rather than bathers, but Matisse would continue to work on this composition for his own purposes.

Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917
Bathers by a River
Back: 1908-09, 1911(?)-13, 1913-16, c. 1931
A Great French Painter, Henri Matisse: A film from 1946
Art Institute of Chicago
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