Le Serf (1900–04) is unique in Henri Matisse’s oeuvre. It was his first sculpture of the figure and his only sculpture of the male nude from observation. At half life-size, it is one of the most ambitious of his freestanding sculptures; to no other single sculpture did Matisse devote so much time and effort. In an interview in 1941, he stated that he took up sculpture “to bring order to his brain” at a time when he “had done as much as he could in painting.”

Matisse worked on the Serf in frequent sessions with the model from 1900 to 1903. There’s a photograph, probably from 1903, of Matisse in his studio with the clay figure almost finished and complete with all its limbs. We know the plaster cast of the Serf was exhibited in 1904 and again in 1906, but no photographs of it remain from those exhibitions. The first bronze cast was made from this plaster in 1908; it is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Both of its arms are cleanly severed above the elbow.

Henri Matisse’s Le Serf (1900–04), 1920. Photo: Hanfstaengl. 

Only so much can be gleaned from the historical record about the creation of the Serf. Almost everything else, from its curious and surely inappropriate title, to the disputed identity of the model, to the “accident” that Matisse’s daughter Marguerite later recalled as the cause of the missing arms, remains unresolved. The painter Hans Purrman, a student of Matisse, had the chance to observe the armless, plaster Serf in Paris, and he reckoned that the arms had been lost in an accident in 1905, when Matisse was moving between studios—at which point the Serf would have already been in plaster, since it had been shown the year prior. Likewise, many scholars today consider the arms’ removal to have been a modification to the plaster and therefore secondary to, or even inconsistent with, Matisse’s work on the sculpture in clay.

But this theory ignores an important piece of evidence: the bronze casting itself, which is in fact the most accurate record of the sculpture’s history. Close study reveals that the precise and different treatment of the stumps of each severed arm could only have been achieved in clay, with the use of clay tools. As a sculptor myself, I hope to throw some light on the practical aspects of modeling a standing figure in clay and molding and casting in plaster that proved so critical to the final form of the Serf in bronze. The result was hardly an accident.

What interests me most is neither still life nor landscape, but the human figure,” Matisse wrote in Notes of a Painter (1908). “It is that which best permits me to express my so-to-speak religious feeling towards life.” Matisse was known in 1900 to the few people in his circle as a painter of still life and landscape. It was through sculpture, and specifically the Serf, that he embarked on his lifelong project, the figure in the studio. Paradoxically, it was a painter—Paul Cézanne, relatively unknown at the time—who inspired his study of the figure in three dimensions. As Matisse wrote:

For me, all is in the conception. It is thus necessary to have a clear vision of the whole right from the beginning. I could mention a great sculptor who gives us some admirable pieces: but for him a composition is merely a grouping of fragments, which results in a confusion of expression. Look instead at one of Cézanne’s pictures: all is so well arranged that no matter at what distance you stand and how many figures are represented, you will always be able to distinguish each figure clearly and to know which limb belongs to which body.

The “great sculptor” must be Rodin, whose half-finished plaster of the Gates of Hell Matisse would have seen at his 1900 retrospective.

As for Cézanne, Matisse likely had in mind the painter’s Three Bathers (1879–82), which he had acquired in late 1899. The three women in the painting are separate from each other and framed as if in a triangular niche by the slender trunks of two trees. The two nearer women stand or sit with their backs to us on the bank of a river or lake. The woman between them, facing us, stands in the water with the edge of the bank cutting across her thighs. Clouds and clear sky can be seen between the trees above the distant foliage, but they seem muted in comparison to the strong sunlight illuminating the women’s bodies. Everything is so clear and defined, one feels that nothing, no single brushstroke even, could be moved without threatening the stability of the pictorial structure. That the two nearer women have their backs to us and that the features of the central figure are barely indicated suggest a certain anonymity, a lack of difference between them. Or that the three figures are one figure, of which we are seeing three different aspects.

Paul Cézanne, The Three Bathers, 1904, Oil on canvas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A painting is a flat surface, visible from one side. The problem for sculpture, as Matisse contemplated when making his first figure, was to make more visible, more expressive, a number of the possible views of the work. In Notes of a Painter, Matisse wrote that “Expression for me does not reside in passion bursting from a human face or manifested by violent movement. The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive.” In the Serf, Matisse sought to create a sculpture that was expressive in itself and would not depend on the representation of movement or gesture, as did, for example, Rodin’s St. John the Baptist (1878–79). Matisse’s answer to the challenge of the Three Bathers was literally to make a single figure, a sculpture, of which each major view could present a character as distinct as that of each of the bathers, but as part of a unified and harmonious visual structure.

Although he was thirty-one and had been studying painting for years, he was a virtual beginner in sculpture.

The Serf stands passive and inert on his rectangular, almost square base, but from each side and corner of the base, his aspect is transformed. From the front, he appears as a blocky mass over the empty triangle of opened legs; at the right profile, a sinuous arabesque from the inclined head over the great hump of the back to the forward thrust of the belly and down the curve of the near right leg. Viewed from the right rear corner of the base where the legs line up, the space between them disappears, and the entire figure collapses into a single, surprisingly slender shaft. The abruptness of the transition between each major view is eased by the position of the figure on the base: the heel of the advanced left foot lines up with the toe of the right foot.There is no twist or turn within the figure: the axis through the ankles remains constant up through knees, hips, and shoulders, and it unifies the successive views of the sculpture from the cardinal and diagonal points of the base.

Matisse started the Serf in 1900 in the teaching studio of Rodin’s chief assistant, the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, where Matisse had gone to get some instruction in the technical aspects of sculpture. Although he was thirty-one and had been studying painting for years, he was a virtual beginner in sculpture, having begun his first serious undertaking, a copy of Barye’s Jaguar Devouring a Hare (1850), only the year before. Early in 1900 he found a life class run by the painter Eugène Carrière, a friend of Rodin and Bourdelle, where he could work without distraction from younger students on his increasingly radical figure studies. One of these studies in paint, Male Model (1900), shows how powerful the influence of Cézanne’s Bathers had been in the short time Matisse had owned it.

Henri Matisse, Male Model, 1900, Oil on canvas. Photo: henrimatisse.org.

The model in the painting is one César Pignatelli, also known as Bevilacqua, who twenty years earlier had posed for the St. John the Baptist that made Rodin’s reputation. He subsequently became known as “Rodin’s model” and had photographs made of himself in the pose of St. John. If the pose looks awkward and unconvincing in these pictures, it is: the exact pose of the statue is physically impossible for a human standing on level ground. Reworking the half-length study for the St. John that came to be known as the Walking Man (1877–1900), Rodin was even more ruthless with Pignatelli’s anatomy, adding inches to the trailing left leg to pitch the torso forward and replacing the entire upper body with a headless and armless simulation of a Hellenistic torso, crudely joined at the hips.

Every part of him is visible, but as if seen from slightly differing viewpoints.

Bevilacqua provided Matisse the opportunity to work with an experienced model who, having posed for Rodin, could possibly reveal some of his studio practice. The Male Model painting shows how Matisse adapted the St. John pose: the gesturing arms now fall, relaxed, the hands resting mid-thigh; the legs are still widely spaced but now separated, no longer in line as if walking. The pose looks as if it could be maintained for hours without strain. The painting also uses pictorial devices learned from Cézanne to anticipate how the model’s pose would appear from multiple views as a sculpture. Our view of the model is synoptic: every part of him is visible, but as if seen from slightly differing viewpoints.

It would have been Matisse’s move in late 1900 with his family to an apartment above his wife’s newly established hat shop that made it possible for him to start making sculpture in the studio where they had been living, on the fifth floor of 19 quai St. Michel overlooking the Hotel de Ville across the Seine. From this moment the clay Serf disappears from public view. Matisse had it photographed late in 1903; it was never seen again except by Matisse and whoever assisted with the molding and casting, and it would have been destroyed in the waste-molding process before the plaster’s first exhibition in 1904.

The life studios in which Matisse drew, painted, and modeled Bevilacqua were large. One could stand at various distances from the model, approach from multiple directions, and include or ignore whatever else was in their fields of view. They could also turn the model on his stand or move their own clay figures on their stands. In contrast, the one contemporary photograph that exists of Matisse’s studio shows what a confined space it was. From observation of the exterior of the building today it appears the studio was just over twenty feet long. Its width may have been twelve feet, but the ceiling was quite high—to judge again from the exterior and from the painting Studio Interior (1904), perhaps ten feet high.

Henri Matisse, Studio Interior, 1904, Oil on canvas. Photo: henrimatisse.org.

Probably Matisse had Bevilacqua stand on a rectangular piece of cardboard directly on the floor or on a platform, with the position of his feet precisely marked, in front of the only source of heat in the studio, the fireplace, which can be seen behind the model in the painting Carmelina (1903). Matisse would have been in the center of the studio, only a few feet away, looking at the model and working the clay with his hands or a modeling tool. There would have been no need, indeed hardly room, to move or change his position during the session. Nor would he have turned his clay figure or had the model himself turn. Though there is no evidence of it in the photo, Matisse may have stood at times on a step or small platform to work, or had Bevilacqua stand on one, to get level views of the model’s legs and his upper body.

The clay Serf in the 1903 studio photo seems complete, precisely defined, ready to be cast. Matisse had several prints made, presumably to send to potential collectors: a public announcement that Henri Matisse, previously known as a painter, was now also a sculptor. The pieces of clay and the modeling tool on and beside its base might indicate a few last-minute adjustments, but the modeling of the figure seems sharp and detailed—the accumulation of small accents over the torso, the precise definition of the features, the fingers and thumb of the right hand.

Over three years and countless sessions with Bevilacqua, the clay figure accumulated more material than it had lost. Because of the fixed dimensions of the interior armature built in Bourdelle’s studio, the accumulation of material tended to be upward and outward, on the head and upper body. The freshness of Matisse’s modeling in the photo suggests that each session might have begun with his cutting back the existing surface of the part of the model facing him (as if scraping back an area of a canvas) and then basically starting over, but with the awareness that with every session the contours of the rest of the clay figure had been modified.

Henri Matisse with Le Serf in his studio, 1903. Photo: Anonymous.

Yet the only part of the sculpture in the photograph that seems the same as the bronze cast we see today is the rectangular base with its inscribed title. The arms are gone, of course, and their presence in the photo prevents our seeing much of the sides and back of the figure. The back of the bronze Serf is notable for the prevalence of planes, where material has been sliced or cut back with a knife or flat modeling tool. In the studio photo, no such planes are visible. Again, the view is obscured, but it seems likely that the handling of the surface would have been consistent throughout; flat planes would have been out of keeping with the tight and precise modeling of the clay model in the photo, with its general character of a small allover lumpiness.

It may have been the moment of decision to cast the Serf.

The modeling and proportions of the clay figure as we see it in the studio photo may well be the outcome of Matisse’s last known session with Bevilacqua on a brief visit to Paris in August 1903. In fact the sculpture may not have changed substantially since the turn of the year 1902, when Matisse had left Paris for his native region (near Belgium). At this absolute low point in his life, physically exhausted, sick, unable to work, and even questioning his decision to become an artist, for Matisse the clay figure of the Serf securely wrapped and occasionally watered in the Paris studio had become an emblem of survival. But when he returned to Paris in the fall of 1903, the future looked brighter: he had sold several paintings and had the promise of a show at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery. This turn in his fortunes may have encouraged Matisse to think about showing his sculpture for the first time. Madeleine I (1901), the Bust of an Old Woman (1900), and the Jaguar (1899–1901) were already in plaster. It may have been the moment of decision to cast the Serf.

There has been much speculation about when, where, and why the Serf lost its arms. Matisse himself said nothing on the matter; he gave no account of the casting, as he gave no account of the modeling sessions beyond the fact that there were many (“three or five hundred”) and it was hard work. But we can surmise that Matisse cast the clay figure in plaster at some point between the autumn of 1903, when the studio photo was taken, and the spring of 1904, when he painted Studio Interior—presuming, of course, that the painting is an accurate depiction of his studio at the time. There a plaster cast of the Serf appears, with casts of the Bust of an Old Woman and the Jaguar, on top of an armoire. This plaster cast was unique, as both the clay original and the mold would have been destroyed in the waste-molding process. In front of it is the modeling stand where the clay Serf previously stood, now surmounted with a still-life arrangement. The same armoire blocks the door in the studio photo and can be seen behind Matisse himself in the mirror reflecting the model’s back in Carmelina.

Henri Matisse, Carmelina, 1903, Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It is possible that Matisse consulted a professional moldmaker as he contemplated casting the Serf. The sheer mass and top-heavy form of the clay figure presented difficulties he had not experienced in successfully molding and casting the much smaller Madeleine I and Jaguar and other pieces. There was no way the clay figure could be molded on the high modeling stand in the studio photo; it would have been moved to a lower surface where it could stand securely and be within easy reach from all sides.

In the event, what may have happened was that the clay figure became unbalanced during the move and began to fall, if whoever was standing on the right side of the figure did not keep a steady hold of its lower arm. The fall would have been arrested, but the right hand with the arm attached may have pulled clear from the thigh and the single rod that formed its armature.

A professional moldmaker would have pointed out that this was not a tragedy, that molding and casting the narrow opening, the “window,” between the arm and the trunk on each side of the figure was going to be difficult, even with a piece mold. It would be much simpler to detach the arms and mold and cast them separately.

There is a scarred depression, a crater, in the right thigh of the Serf, suggesting that the metal rod inside the arm was violently pulled away from the structure of the main armature internally supporting the figure. A great slice down the front of the left thigh conceals any sign of where the left hand and wrist were removed. The cut sections of each upper arm have been carefully shaped, leaving a hint of the sawn-through armature rod; such a separation must be considered a deliberate action, consistent with an intention to replace the arms when they and the rest of the figure had been cast in plaster. The next step would be to decide on the division of the surface of the figure by brass shims or clay walls into sections, which could be separately removed from the clay model after the plaster that had been poured into the mold had set.

It must have been at a moment like this, as Matisse surveyed the now armless clay figure to plan the mold sections, that he came to the realization not only that the sculpture did not need the lower arms to complete itself, but also that without them it could be resolved into three distinct elements—the base, the open triangle of the legs culminating at the waist, and the great upper mass of chest, shoulders, and head. And so the act of separating the arms, which was to have been the first step in casting and completing the sculpture, became instead the first step in reshaping the transformed clay figure for itself, independent of the model.

A knife defines form by reduction.

This final phase of the Serf’s evolution, as Matisse reworked the entire sculpture except the base, may have been quite brief, a matter of weeks or even days. The necessary use of a knife or flat tool to cut off the arms and then to trim the stumps seems to have led to its inventive use to scrape back the area of the thigh where the wrist of the left arm had been attached and, from there, to define planes on the sides and backs of both legs and to cut deep in the small of the back. A knife defines form by reduction; in opposition, Matisse modeled individual shapes to energize the torso, the shoulders, the severed upper arms, the pectorals, the belly, the genitals—forms occurring in their anatomical places but each with its own character as an individual and graspable volume. There is a single lump perched on the furthest rearward point of the right side of the back that has no anatomical significance, but it echoes the forward thrust of the left side of the belly and the deep valley between the pectorals. Matisse gives us the male body as a new configuration of volumes registering with the eye at a distance and appealing to the hand from up close.

Nowhere is Matisse’s imaginative reinvention of anatomy more evident than in the Serf’s head. He makes no distinction between the substance (and even the presence) of features: of hair, skin, and muscle, of the bone or cartilage beneath, and of the traces of sculpting in clay over an iron armature and of molding and casting into plaster. Perhaps the most dominant aspect of the head is the strange, almost geometric block that protrudes from high on its left side, over the ear—but we realize there is no ear, just a kind of scooped-out area with a ridge that runs vertically from the top of the head down to the chin, indicating the main separation line for the mold. There is plainly an ear on the right side, a lump among similar lumps of hair, brow, and forehead, but it sits on a vertical ridge between the cavity of the absent cheek and the huge slice Matisse has taken out of the rear side of the head and neck.

Once Matisse had made the decision to continue working the armless figure in clay before finally casting it, there was no going back to the observation of the model. The accident had shown that the armature that had supported the figure since its beginning in Bourdelle’s studio could be modified and need not necessarily determine the final form of the sculpture in every respect. One might conclude that Matisse had to sacrifice his original project of creating a “well arranged” figure complete with all its limbs, so that “wherever you stand, you will be able to distinguish it clearly” as a whole, in favor of what has been perceived as a Rodinian solution (and specifically that of the Walking Man) of cutting off unneeded body parts for dramatic effect.

But Matisse had already in other sculptures removed body parts in the interest of a perceptual completeness, a unity. What is remarkable about the Serf is the length of time and determination that Matisse gave to his study of the model, in contrast to the brevity of the time in which the figure was again transformed, still in clay, into the form we know today, first cast in plaster and then in bronze.

The Serf and Madeleine I were exhibited by Matisse in the Salon d’automne of 1904, together with fourteen paintings. It was the first time he had shown sculpture, but the work seems not to have aroused particular interest; the paintings were given generous critical attention, while the sculptures were described almost in afterthought as “a nude man, vigorously accentuated” and “a young girl, quite amusingly curved.”

But the writer who noted that “M. Matisse is more cézannien than Cézanne himself” surely had the Serf in mind.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 4, on page 26
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