In 1930, at the age of 61, Henri Matisse met Doctor Albert Barnes, an American millionaire and modern art collector, founder of the Barnes foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. Albert Barnes proposed a mural commission for his foundation, leaving Matisse free to choose the subject. Between 1930 and 1933, Henri Matisse worked almost exclusively on this huge project, which was a creative milestone in his career. He chose dance, which had been one of his favourite themes for a number of years, as the subject of the work. Never having created a work in an architectural setting, the commission was a great challenge for Matisse. Three versions of La Danse exist; two of them are in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Not satisfied with the first version, La Danse inachevée (‘The Uncompleted Dance’), which he considered too decorative, Matisse embarked on a second version of La Danse, with a system of pieces of coloured paper (grey, blue, pink and black), cut out and pinned to the canvas to facilitate changes to his composition. Matisse achieved the balance he was seeking; this version was called La Danse de Paris. But, unfortunately, the measurements were wrong for the architecture. He decided to begin again with a third version, which was installed at the Barnes foundation in April 1933. In 1990, La Danse inachevée was discovered in Matisse’s studio in Nice. That version and La Danse are both on display at the Museum in the room devoted to Matisse.