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Matisse and Munch Essay

The Dance – Henri Matisse, (1909), oil on canvas. This painting was commissioned in 1909 by Sergei Shchukin for decorative purposes (MoMa). The painting comprises five nudes dancing in a circle that is reminiscent of ancient pagan practices. Dance of Life – Edvard Munch, (1899), oil on canvas. This painting was comprises of what can be described as a ‘cyclic view of life’ whereby “We repeat ourselves like crystals that are dissolved and then recrystallise again” (Munch in Humanities Web).

This piece is a highly symbolic picture of life and death and the union of souls while Matisse invokes the somewhat basic nature of humanity right down to its drives and instincts. Munch was particularly concerned with the various ways in which you see the same thing, depending on mood and time of day.

“The fact is that at different times you see with different eyes.” (Munch in Eggum). Matisse prized himself on a mature compilation of color and line that was not close to the morbid fascination with death that Munch had. In the two paintings there is a distinct two dimensionality that is curiously juxtaposed to a somewhat well-arranged subject matter. Matisse and Munch both use the same vivid color but Munch has a much more diverse palette in this case.

Matisse appears to be sampling the primitive nature of life that is shown by the nudity of the subjects as well as the circular composition of subjects that is reminiscent of baroque artists such as Rubens. Munch uses color to denote the presence of life on the left hand side (white) and death (black) in the clothing of the woman on the right.

In between is a fire-red dress that symbolises the unity of the man and the woman. Munch creates a heavy background full of circling people while in Matisse there is no background except for a horizon line created by green paint. The background in Munch’s painting shows the people becoming smaller in an attempt to give the impression of depth in an otherwise flat picture.


Eggum, Arne. Edvard Munch as a Painter. Munch Museet, 2009.

Humanities Web. The Dance of Life. 2009.

MoMa. Henri Matisse – Gallery label text. 2006.

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