Henri Matisse: Buste Ancien

Cast in 1900, Buste Ancien is one of the earliest and best bronze sculptures by the French artist Henri Matisse.

Best known for his colorful paintings and monochromatic drawings, Matisse turned to sculpture in 1899 to satisfy his interest in conquering weight and mass in his portrait work. “I did sculpture because what interested me in painting was to put order into my head,” the artist told Pierre Courthion in 1931, as quoted in Jack Flam’s 1986 book Matisse: The Man and His Art, 1869-1918. “I took up clay in order to have a rest from painting, in which I had done absolutely everything I could for the moment. That is, it was all for the purpose of organizing. It was to give order to my sensations, to search out a method that absolutely suited me. When I found it in sculpture, it served me in my painting.”

Matisse admired Rodin, and two years before he created Buste Ancien, he even purchased Rodin’s bust of Rochefort.

Rodin was complementary of Matisse’s drawings, and while he appreciated Rodin’s critique, he also chose not to take his advice. Rodin encouraged painstaking detail. Matisse figured if he wanted to make a facsimile, he wouldn’t need anyone’s advice, Flam wrote in Matisse: The Man and His Art, 1869-1918. “Unlike Rodin, who worked the parts of his sculptures separately — an approach that sometimes gave them a strikingly discordant effect — Matisse wanted to work his forms in sweeping wholes and avoid fragmentation,” Flam wrote.

Matisse was more interested in the character of his subjects, and executed his works in a gestural, more emotive fashion.

Buste Ancien is a perfect example, and has impeccable provenance. A private collector acquired the work from the artist’s family, and it was sold at Sotheby’s London in 1960 to Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. It was then in the Joseph Hirshhorn Collection in New York, followed by two other private collections.