Henri Matisse
Le Serf (The Serf), 1900-1903, cast before 1929

Matisse’s practice as a sculptor began nearly simultaneously with his career as a painter. Despite claiming that he regarded sculpture as secondary to his painting, he worked on sculpture for most of his life. He had limited formal training and began with little of the technical proficiency expected of nineteenth-century sculptors.

In spite of dire poverty, in 1899 Matisse purchased a plaster bust by the sculptor Auguste Rodin; he learned all he could from exhibitions and photographs of Rodin’s work and from a visit to the master’s studio. When he undertook Le serf in 1900, Matisse followed Rodin’s lead, hiring a well-known Italian model named Bevilacqua who had posed for Rodin’s celebrated Walking Man. Matisse employed Bevilacqua for as many as five hundred modeling sessions, even though a fellow artist referred to the aging model as “a sort of anthropoid.”

Matisse labored over Le serf for at least three years, until 1903. His overwhelming debt to Rodin is apparent in the fragmented form of this robust sculpture and in the energetic manipulation of its surface.

The quality of Matisse’s surface is, however, new. The pitted, broken surfaces of Rodin’s figures evoke once-perfect anatomies that have suffered the ravages of accident and time, whereas the lumpy surfaces of Matisse’s slave express agitation. Discrete, light-reflecting masses constitute the figure without representing actual anatomy. This work liberated Matisse from the requirement that sculpture must convey the illusion of muscle, bone, and flesh.

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Le Serf (The Serf)
Artist name
Henri Matisse
Date created
1900-1903, cast before 1929
36 1/8 in. × 14 7/8 in. × 13 in. (91.77 cm × 37.8 cm × 33.02 cm)
Date acquired
Collection SFMOMA
Bequest of Harriet Lane Levy
© Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Permanent URL
Artwork status
Not on view at this time.

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