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It is now generally acknowledged that the two greatest painters of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Henri Matisse, were also two of its greatest sculptors. In 2002 the Gallery acquired its first and, so far, only significant sculpture by Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande), 1909. That work is now joined by Figure Décorative, 1908, the first sculpture by Matisse to enter the collection.

These two works, both bronzes that treat the female form and were made at roughly the same time, could not be more different. While Picasso was attempting to translate his analytic cubism into three dimensions in Head of a Woman, resulting in a work of multiple intersecting facets, Matisse was concerned with something much more traditional in Figure Décorative, namely the modern revival of Venus as a subject for art. The model was his wife, and indeed her portrait may be discerned in the head, but the apparently autoerotic placement of her left hand between her legs identifies the work strongly with traditional representations of Venus. And yet there is nothing traditional about the way this figure confronts our gaze, not coyly or demurely but boldly. Matisse had recently seen Picasso’s revolutionary painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the artist’s studio, with its five nude female figures staring down the spectator. Already in rivalry with Picasso, Matisse attempted a similar rawness of pose and expression in a painting of 1907, La coiffure, whose pose he then adapted for the Gallery’s new sculpture.

Every limb in Figure Décorative seems to have its own energy, indeed buoyancy, which gives a sense of bursting inner life to the figure as a whole. This, taken together with the figure’s buried hand, crossed legs, and pursed lips, seems to suggest that she is harboring a vital secret.


inscribed: HM / 6 / 10

Marks and Labels

FM: Valsuani


Garfield I. [1890-1975] and Rose Levy [1900-1996] Kass; by inheritance to their daughter, Mary Kass [1930-2009]; The Mary Kass Compromise Trust; purchased 17 March 2011 by NGA.

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