I imagine a visitor coming in from the outside. . . . One must summon up energy, give a feeling of lightness. My first panel represents the dance, that whirling round on top of the hill. On the second floor . . . in its silence I see a scene of music with engrossed participants; finally, the third floor is completely calm . . . a scene of repose: some people reclining on the grass, chatting or daydreaming.
—Matisse, interview with Charles Estienne, March 1909

By 1909 Matisse had formed relationships with a number of important and supportive collectors, chief among them the Russian businessman Sergei Shchukin. Impressed by the recent Bathers with a Turtle, Shchukin acquired a number of Matisse’s Arcadian compositions in 1908; the following spring, he commissioned decorative panels for the stairway of his Moscow home. The artist initially suggested the subjects of dance and bathers, themes that would allow him to synthesize his evolving interests in harmonious colors, painted surfaces, arabesques, and flat, overall designs, combining them with the tradition of painted décorations, pictures of mythical subjects that were intended to evoke tranquility. After much correspondence on the number and subjects of the panels, Shchukin and Matisse firmly agreed to two works on the themes of dance and music, although the artist would also continue to pursue his own bathers composition.

While Matisse was preparing for this commission, his studio in Paris was sold, and he made arrangements to relocate to the suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux. Before moving, he spent the summer with his family in the small southern coastal village of Cavalière-Sur-Mer, where he explored his idea of locating the dance and music panels in an idyllic setting. There he worked with his model Loulou Brouty, painting canvases like Nude by the Sea, which feature nymphlike figures in a forest or on a shore. In September the artist settled into his new home in Issy, where he erected a prefabricated studio purchased with the funds from the Shchukin commission. There he would return to Shchukin’s project, drawing on his impression of the south—the blue sea, green pines, and warm light—to infuse his new canvases.