The Paper Costumes of Henri Matisse for the Russian Ballet “The Song of the Nightingale”1920
Henri Matisse, famous for his brilliantly-coloured paintings and flamboyant line, designed The Song of the Nightingale for Diaghilev in 1920.
His overall scheme was restrained and used black, white and yellow for dramatic emphasis. The costumes, made of paper and created in multiples, became part of a fluctuating pattern of stylised shape and colour.
Henri Matisse had no interest in ballet until he saw the success of Andre Derain’s The Magical Toyshop (1919). He was finally convinced to do the designs for The Song of the Nightingale after Igor Stravinsky played excerpts from the ballet’s score and Léonide Massine, whom Matisse admired, was commissioned to design the choreography.
In his designs for the set and costumes for The Song of the Nightingale, Matisse simplified the elements of line and decoration, reducing them to their essence.
His most dramatic costumes were made for a group of mourners who wore hooded coats of felt appliquéd with midnight-blue velvet. They appear as abstract forms, yet powerfully symbolize the rituals of death and mourning.
Paper Costume by Matisse
Henri Matisse’s costumes for The Song of the Nightingale related to each other and to the backdrops. He deliberately masked the contours of the dancers’ bodies beneath large, voluminous rectangular costumes, painted in bold, slightly oriental patterns. When they moved, the dancers were transformed into stylised patterns of shape and colour.
The yellow satin of “costume for a mandarin”, appliqued with large gold and black discs, when seen from a distance, looked like a field of yellow sprinkled with large flowers.
Although known previously as a bold colourist, by the 1920s, the bleached colours of the French Riviera, where Matisse lived, had muted his palette. The audience associated the Russian Ballet with lavish spectacle, instead they got elegant simplicity and monochromatic colour. Matisse’s backdrop was white with a yellow border, the design of masks and Chinese lion statues suggesting an unspecified exotic land.
A critic at the time described the set as ‘far simpler than that of Bakst, yet on account of its colour and perfect proportions, it gives the impression of great oriental grandeur and luxury’. The choreography also had a stately simplicity about it. The poses, movements, and groupings were inspired by Chinese paintings on silk and lacquered screens. The ballet is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of ‘The Nightingale’.