"La Danseuse nègre (La Négresse) is a revelation. She is just as tall as the wall behind, and her feet even give the impression of striding across the stage. This magnificent negress moves out towards us, with the full rhythmical force of her dance, with the sinuousity and at the same time harmonious passion of her body; birds swarm around her, forming a wreath. Here, as elsewhere, Matisse has obviously felt with his hands every part of the dancing figure from whom he adopted only the proportions."
André Vernet, A Visit to Henri Matisse, 1952
In Washington, not far from New York by American standards, the National Gallery of Art possesses major large-format papiers découpées. These works are a challenge on account of their dimensions alone. Grande décoration aux masques, 1953, measures 3.54 x 10 m, and La Négresse, 1953, a full 4.53 x 6.24 m. In the case of the latter, not even Matisse's high-ceilinged studio was large enough, so the elements forming her feet rested on the floor there.
Unusually, these works are displayed without glazing. This permits them to be appreciated directly. Yet on the other hand, this form of presentation involves endangering the fragile surface of the works. Our conservator had an opportunity to discuss the resulting problems with the conservator on site.
The Conservators' trip then took them to Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, to view La Danse, 1933. This work was commissioned by Albert Barnes for his foundation. In executing this monumental "décoration" Matisse initially relied, for the first time, on cut-out paper elements. This relieved him of the task of having continually to repaint alterations in the composition. It was not until ten years later that the painted paper elements advanced from a purely compositional aid to become an autonomous means of expression.