What’s the story behind the similarity between the Tate Gallery’s little William Blake watercolour Oberon, Titania And Puck With Fairies Dancing, 18″ x 26″, from 1786:

and the composition of  Matisse’s two huge Dance paintings?  The first, the sketch from 1909, is now in the Museum of Modern Art, in New York:

The wonderful 1910 final version is in St Petersburg, in the Hermitage:

Not knowing the Blake, I only just noticed the resemblance.  Could it be coincidence that his left-hand figures have exactly the same twisted-trunk turning form as Blake’s does?  In all three paintings there is a curved line you can follow from the tip of the left foot all the way upwards to the end of the left hand. There are other similarities: the right-hand foreground figures who are all nearly flying and the grey or green circle on the ground that the figures dance around.  (As Nijma points out below, Titania’s fairies dance in a fairy ring, which accounts for Blake illustrating it, but there’s no such narrative explanation for Matisse’s circles, which simply underline the circular dance of his figures.) The linked arms are made more of by Matisse than by Blake: Matisse gets my eye to move clockwise round the group by way of the swooping arms, but there is the beginning of that in the Blake too.  No other contemporary painting of dancers uses this device at all as far as I know, not even the ones by Matisse.

The hands just don’t meet in Matisse ‘s foregrounds; they certainly aren’t just big modernist copies of the Blake image, but there’s no mention of the similarities between the works either–at least, not anywhere I’ve looked.  William Blake is not even in the index of Hillary Spurling’s Matisse biography.  She says that Matisse first used the motif of the ring of dancers on the beach in the background of  Le Bonheur de Vivre of 1906, where their arms aren’t linked together as they are in the Blake.  According to the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones:

An unlikely source for the figures in Dance was an artist – a primitive in Matisse’s eyes – who lived in the heart of a modern city: JMW Turner. Matisse made a special study of this overwhelming British colourist – who, like him, loved the Mediterranean – on his honeymoon in London in 1898, when he looked repeatedly at Turner’s art in the National Gallery. You could hang Dance next to Turner’s paintings and the emotional use of colour to blaze a path between the imaginations of artist and beholder would immediately strike you as similar. Turner’s Mediterranean scenes are peopled, too, with Arcadian figures. The five figures in Dance look uncannily like a group of dancers in Turner’s The Golden Bough and reminiscent of dancers in other Turner paintings such as Apuleia In Search Of Apuleius, which was on view at the National Gallery in 1898. What makes them so similar is the serpentine loose depiction of the bodies, which in Matisse is deliberate and in his model was an accident. Turner didn’t paint people very well. His figures are ungainly, rough – in short, “primitive”.

It’s odd that Jones–a Blake lover if ever there was one–doesn’t mention Blake’s watercolour.  Here is a detail from Turner’s The Golden Bough:

It’s a background group that seems more like the dancers in Le Bonheur de vivre than to either of Matisse’s Dance paintings.

It’s not clear to me that Matisse would have had an opportunity to see the  Blake; it was in the private collection of  a South African ostrich-feather tycoon called Alfred A. de Pass, until 1910.

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