Related Story: VIEW The States of the Painting
From the Closer Look in the Art Institute of Chicago app, available for iOS devices through the iTunes Store.


Henri Matisse, Bathers by a River, March 1909–10, May-November 1913, and early spring 1916–October (?) 1917. Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Matisse worked on Bathers by a River on and off for eight years. The evolution of the painting can be traced in X-rays of the work carried out by Art Institute conservators. Tracings on the following images represent how Matisse moved the figures and changed the composition.


First State, March–May 1909. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

First State, March–May 1909: The first state of the painting is connected to the first phase of the 1909 commission for decorative panels in Sergei Shchukin’s Moscow home that would eventually result in Dance II and Music (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). The theme of bathers and arcadia was central to Matisse’s original scheme: the X-ray reveals the earliest forms of four figures surrounding a waterfall and stream.


Second State, fall 1909–spring 1910. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Second State, fall 1909–spring 1910: Matisse repositioned the figure to the left of the stream, raising her to above the midpoint of the canvas and turning her toward the viewer. He shifted the figure on the right of the waterfall, lifting her head and straightening her back. The artist adjusted the pose of the fourth figure as well, although the exact changes are difficult to extract from the tangle of revisions visible in the X-ray. It is certain, however, that Matisse tightened her pose and strengthened her limbs in response to the stiffer, more muscular figures of Dance II that he was completing at the same time. Cross sections demonstrate a change to a palette with richer tones that also parallel the finished versions of Shchukin’s panels.


Third state, May 1913. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Third state, May 1913: Here Matisse used a more exaggerated approach to modeling. He changed the once-graceful stance of the left figure, for example, into a more rigid, upright one by blocking out the volume of earlier limbs and musculature with wedge-shaped forms. While he generally worked within the existing palette, he executed his most dramatic revisions to the forms in the new colors of pale pink, dark gray, and black.


Fourth state, early November 1913. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Fourth state, early November 1913: At the top, Matisse retained the high horizon that is the source of the waterfall; he also kept the general position of the four bathers and the snake, although shifting them slightly in some cases. But the artist also took a more angular, abstracted, Cubist approach to form, reducing the figures to give them a generalized hieratic quality. Finally, Matisse drastically transformed the picture’s mood with an austere palette primarily of grays.


Fifth state, early spring–November 1916. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Fifth state, early spring–November 1916: Matisse resumed work on the painting in the spring of 1916. He replaced the forested landscape and rippling waterfall of November 1913 with vertical registers of color as well as a bold, stylized leaf pattern. The artist scraped away and built up new layers of paint to produce more geometric figures of greater weight and permanence. He also reintroduced a wider range of colors — blue, green, and white — to the picture, especially in the background, while working the paint around the figures. At this point, we see a far more animated and rigorously constructed composition that is distinguished by a pronounced definition of constituent parts as well as by their complex, dynamic integration.


Sixth and final state, January–October (?) 1917. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Sixth and final state, January–October (?) 1917: Unlike the bold transformations of 1916, in his final work on the painting, Matisse attended slowly to two specific areas of the canvas. On the left edge, he continued to work on the leaves, lightly scraping back paint, revealing earlier layers, reshaping the contours, and cleaning lines. He also revised the band between the third and fourth figures, adding a thin, white, brushy scumble of paint over the blue.