Henri Matisse
French, 1869–1954
Bathers by a River
March 1909–10, May–November 1913, and early spring 1916–October (?) 1917

Oil on canvas
102 1/2 x 154 3/16 in. (260 x 392 cm)
Signed, l.l.: "Henri-Matisse"
The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1953.158
© 2009 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

During his long career, Henri Matisse worked in varied media, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and collage. Matisse's art diverged from the Cubist style in his freer use of color and greater attention to the decorative effects of line and pattern. A leader of Fauvism, a movement that relied on exaggerated, non-naturalistic use of color, Matisse later began to exhibit a more austere style closer to Cubism. Bathers by the River, a work completed in several stages between 1909 and 1916, is a supreme example of this phase in Matisse's art. It is considered one of his greatest masterpieces.

The painting began as one of three panels commissioned for the residence of a Moscow collector. The first version was a stylized rendering of a pastoral scene showing five nude females near a waterfall. After the collector decided not to purchase that composition, Matisse worked on the canvas again in 1913, eliminating one figure and transforming the remaining nudes into abstract forms.

Still dissatisfied with the painting in 1916, Matisse turned the blue stream into a black band, to which he added a white snake (possibly a reference to the snake that tempted Eve in paradise). He isolated the columnar figures against vertical zones of green, black, white, and grayish blue. Silhouetted against the light and dark zones at right, these somber figures are far removed from the graceful inhabitants of the original composition. In fact, the panel’s grave tone may reflect Matisse’s reaction to World War I (1914–1918) and the threat it posed to the values of art and life that the artist had originally set out to celebrate.