The first time Matisse used paper cut-outs was to compose the three panels of La Danse, a large composition he painted for the Barnes Foundation. He reworked it many times from 1930 to 1932. To avoid having to paint and remove the colour, Matisse had sheets of paper painted in the four colours he chose. He cut out forms and moved the pieces around until he reached the final composition. He then painted the coloured masses with oil on the canvas to replace the pieces of paper.
In this first experiment, paper cut-outs were just a tool to work out the colour harmony and composition of the final painting. A few years later, the paper cut-outs became artworks in their own right, even if some of them were then engraved by the publisher Tériade in 1947 for the book Jazz.
Matisse refined the technique of the gouache cut-outs. He said that cutting in the colours in this way reminded him of “the sculptor’s direct carving.” With one gesture the scissors he was defining the line and the volume.
His works with painted papers were infused with memories of a trip to Tahiti he did in 1930: pure colour, the emerald or turquoise water of the Pacific Ocean, corals glowing like sapphires, sponges, jellyfish, fabulous fishes and birds. He was so overwhelmed by the beauty of what he saw on the island that he was unable to paint. He did only a few bad photographs he disgarded soon because he feared they would dampen the strong impressions he felt and brought back in his heart.
Even when he was sick and stuck in bed, he would still cut the coloured papers with his scissors and tell Lydia Delectorskaya, his muse and assistant, where to pin the pieces on the wall. He would work the compositions over and over until he was satisfied with them, altering the forms with new pieces or masking some he had glued before.