Curator, Ann Temkin: Hi I’m Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting & Sculpture. The four Backs by Henri Matisse are reliefs which means that they are sculptures that were always intended not to be seen in the round, free standing, but actually applied against a wall.
The first Back was made around 1908-1909, really in his first decade as a celebrated artist. And still making work that details the female body in a pretty naturalistic way. But by the time of the second and third Backs, you see a very close relationship to Matisse’s interest in more stark geometries than he had been in the years prior.
Whereas in the 19th century it would have been seen as the sculptor’s goal to make a person seem to be almost real, by the time around 1930 when Matisse is making the fourth one, making a sculpture of a person look real is no longer the goal. Making a sculpture that's interesting as a sculpture as an object is the priority.
When we did the Matisse exhibition that Alfred Barr curated in 1951 we showed only three of these Backs. Matisse died in 1954, and shortly after that his son Pierre wrote to Alfred Barr and said, “Guess what? We found a fourth Back in Matisse’s studio! Your 3 were actually not a complete set, there were four!” And so the three Backs became the four Backs much to our surprise.