African Influence In Modern Art

Male Reliquary Figure, 19th century
Gabon or Democratic Republic of Congo; Ambete
Wood, pigment, metal, cowrie shells

H. 32 1/2 in. (82.6 cm)
The Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Collection, 2002 (2002.456.17)

ON VIEW: GALLERY 352 Last Updated July 27, 2012

Pierre Matisse, like his father Henri, acquired works of African art that related to the modernist interest in abstraction of the human form. Striking for its juxtaposition of still and active attitudes, this standing male figure is a receptacle for ancestral relics. The interior of its hollow torso is accessible through the back’s removable rectangular panel. While sculptural traditions amplifying the importance of sacred ancestral relics are widespread in this region of Central Africa, they generally consist of figurative sculptures that accompany relic containers or bundles. This example is one of a series of eight related Ambete works collected north of present-day Congo-Brazzaville by Aristide Courtois during the early twentieth century. On this figure, in addition to the use of black to articulate features, broad passages of red and white pigments are thickly applied to the surface. Throughout the region, these colors refer to essential precepts: red to life force, white to social order and unimpeded perception, and black to death and mourning. The use of all three alludes to the work’s status as an abstract portrait of distant ancestors and to its role in diagnosis and divination.

alludes works status abstract portrait distant ancestors role diagnosis divination

Reliquary Head (Nlo Bieri), 19th–20th century
Gabon; Fang, Betsi group
Wood, metal, palm oil

18 5/16 x 9 3/4 x 6 5/8 in. (46.5 x 24.8 x 16.8 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.229)

ON VIEW: GALLERY 352 Last Updated July 27, 2012

The Fang peoples historically derived a sense of continuity with their past and communal cohesiveness in the present through an ancestral cult known as bieri. Bieri figures exemplify the qualities the Fang admire in people—tranquility, vitality, and the ability to hold opposites in balance. These ideals are shown in the balanced forms of the figures.

The formal features of this Fang reliquary sculpture powerfully influenced modernist artists who began collecting non-Western art during the early twentieth century. This particular work, admired for its balanced symmetry and juxtaposition of straight lines and sinuous curves, became part of the collection of Sir Jacob Epstein in the 1920s. In Fang society, sculptural representations produced for the bieri cult were accessories that complemented a reliquary container. In this instance, the generalized representation of the ancestors embodied by the sculpture has been separated from the specific individuals who were memorialized and addressed through their relics in time of need. The shiny reflective surface is the result of repeated applications of palm oil, a process also replicated on the surface of bieri initiates’ bodies.

applications palm oil process replicated surface ofnbsp bieri nbspinitiates bodies

Seated Male, 19th–20th century
Côte d’Ivoire; Baule
Wood, beads

20 1/16 x 5 1/4 x 7 1/8 in. (51 x 13.3 x 18.1 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1969 (1978.412.425)

ON VIEW: GALLERY 352 Last Updated July 27, 2012

Baule carving traditions embrace embellished functional objects, mask forms that enhance performances, and sculptures that facilitate relations with the spirit world. In Baule society, aesthetics play an important role not only in providing the sculptor with a worthy source of inspiration but also in ensuring a sculpture’s efficacy.

forms combined tonal textural articulation patterns project dramatically gold field

The Young Sailor, 1906
Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954)
Oil on canvas

40 x 32 3/4 in. (101.6 x 83.2 cm)
Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998 (1999.363.41)
© 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

NOT ON VIEW Last Updated July 27, 2012

Beginning in 1905, Matisse spent the summers—and sometimes even the winters—in Collioure and continued to do so intermittently until about 1914. It was in Collioure that the sitter for The Young Sailor, an eighteen-year-old local fisherman named Germain Augustin Barthélémy Montargès (1888–1938), caught his eye. In this second version of the painting (the first, dated 1906, is in a private collection), the contours have been sharpened, the forms are more defined, and the colors have been reduced to large, mostly flat areas of bright green, blue, and pink—a decorative style and palette adopted by Matisse from this point on. Matisse also drastically altered the sailor’s mood and expression. His stylizing brush wiped off the earlier round-cheeked youthfulness of Germain’s face, replacing it with a masklike expression of savvy cunning from which a touch of licentiousness seems not absent. Germain’s rather theatrical looks and his colorful costume, set against the pink candy-colored ground, combine to make this work one of Matisse’s most decorative portraits in the Fauve manner.

pink candy-colored ground combine work matisses decorative portraits fauve manner

Gertrude Stein, 1905–6
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Oil on canvas

39 3/8 x 32 in. (100 x 81.3 cm)
Bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946 (47.106)
© 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

ON VIEW: GALLERY 830 Last Updated July 27, 2012

Pablo Picasso was born in 1881 in Malaga, Spain, and grew up in Barcelona, where he associated with a large group of artists and writers that gathered at the Quatre Gats café. In 1904, Picasso settled in Paris and became friendly with artist Georges Braque, with whom he developed Cubism, and writers Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire. Picasso’s painting style changed many times throughout his career, and he produced a range of images, from classical figures to radical abstractions. He exhibited widely and is considered one of the most important and influential figures in twentieth-century art. Besides being a prolific painter and draftsman, he was also an accomplished sculptor and printmaker and produced ceramics and theatrical designs.

Along with her brother Leo, Gertrude Stein was among the first Americans to respond with enthusiasm to the artistic revolution in Europe in the early years of the twentieth century. The weekly salons she held in her Paris apartment became a magnet for European and American artists and writers alike, and her support of Matisse, Braque, Gris, and Picasso was evident in her many acquisitions of their work. For Picasso, this early patronage and friendship was of major importance.

Picasso’s portrait of the expatriate writer was begun in 1905, at the end of his Harlequin Period and before he took up Cubism. Stein is shown seated in a large armchair, wearing her favorite brown velvet coat and skirt. Her impressive demeanor and massive body are aptly suggested by the monumental depiction.

In her book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932), Stein described the making of this picture: “Picasso had never had anybody pose for him since he was sixteen years old. He was then twenty-four and Gertrude had never thought of having her portrait painted, and they do not know either of them how it came about. Anyway, it did, and she posed for this portrait ninety times. There was a large broken armchair where Gertrude Stein posed. There was a couch where everybody sat and slept. There was a little kitchen chair where Picasso sat to paint. There was a large easel and there were many canvases. She took her pose, Picasso sat very tight in his chair and very close to his canvas and on a very small palette, which was of a brown gray color, mixed some more brown gray and the painting began. All of a sudden one day Picasso painted out the whole head. I can’t see you anymore when I look, he said irritably, and so the picture was left like that.”

Picasso actually completed the head after a trip to Spain in fall 1906. His reduction of the figure to simple masses and the face to a mask with heavy lidded eyes reflects his recent encounter with African, Roman, and Iberian sculpture and foreshadows his adoption of Cubism. He painted the head, which differs in style from the body and hands, without the sitter, testimony to the fact that it was his personal vision, rather than empirical reality, that guided his work. When someone commented that Stein did not look like her portrait, Picasso replied, “She will.”

vision empirical reality guided work commented stein portrait picasso replied

Bust of a Man, 1908
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Oil on canvas

24 1/2 x 17 1/8 in. (62.2 x 43.5 cm)
Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995 (1996.403.5)
© 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

NOT ON VIEW Last Updated July 27, 2012

Picasso’s rough-hewn rendering of a man’s head combines aspects of African and Iberian art which had first impacted his work a year or two earlier. Reduced to a few simple shapes and large masses, the head has a masklike appearance. The highly stylized lozenge-shaped eyes and mouth are dark open voids that could have been copied from the stone and bronze Iberian sculptures that Picasso saw in Gósol and the Louvre, or from the wooden African masks in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro and in private collections, but most likely were a synthesis of both sources.

african masks muse dethnographie du trocadro private collections synthesis sources

Head of a Woman, 1909
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)

16 x 10 1/4 x 10 in. (40.6 x 26 x 25.4 cm)
Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995 (1996.403.6)
© 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

NOT ON VIEW Last Updated July 27, 2012

In 1909, over a ten-month period, Picasso was inspired to create more than sixty Cubist paintings, sculptures, and drawings of women that bear a striking resemblance to his paramour at the time, Fernande Olivier. Although few of these works could be considered traditional “portraits,” they do form a unique group within his oeuvre that shows him working with unusually singular focus. This bronze head of Fernande was modeled in autumn 1909 in Paris after the couple returned from a summer trip to Spain (Horta de Ebro), and represents Picasso’s first Cubist sculpture. Like his early Cubist paintings, the shape of her sculpted head is faceted into smaller units. Fernande’s hair, which she wore up in a rolled do, is here a series of crescent blobs, while her contemplative face is more sharply chiseled into flat planes. Intended to be seen in the round, the composition changes form when viewed from different angles, and the head’s slight tilt and the neck’s sweeping curves give the allusion of movement as if she were about to look over her shoulder.

angles heads slight tilt necks sweeping curves allusion movement shoulder

Woman in an Armchair, 1909–10
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Oil on canvas

32 x 25 3/4 in. (81.3 x 65.4 cm)
The Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls Collection, 1997 (1997.149.7)
© 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

NOT ON VIEW Last Updated July 27, 2012

During the summer of 1909, when Picasso was in Horta de Ebro, Spain, he painted and sculpted a number of Cubist portraits of his lover Fernande Olivier. After returning to Paris later that year, his figures of women became more generalized, without identifiable facial features. This composition of a woman seated in a room reflects his ongoing experiments with integrating the human figure into its surroundings, a process that eventually resulted in the radical dissolution of all forms into commingling lines and planes. In this interim stage of development, however, the architecture of the room still retains its solid form as he depicts the walls, moldings, and open door, while the curves and arabesques of the woman’s body have already begun to merge with the patterned drapery at right. It has been suggested that Picasso based this composition on Cézanne’s portrait of his wife, Mme Cézanne in a Red Dress(1888–90; now in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, 62.45).

mme czanne red dress 188890 metropolitan museums collection 62 45

Woman’s Head, 1912
Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, 1884–1920)

27 x 9 1/4 x 9 3/4 in. (68.6 x 23.5 x 24.8 cm)
The Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls Collection, 1997 (1997.149.10)

NOT ON VIEW Last Updated July 27, 2012

After meeting Brancusi in Paris in 1909, Modigliani, who is best known as a prolific painter, began to carve stone sculptures (ca. 1909–ca. 1914). While his total sculptural output was rather small—only twenty-five pieces survive—these abstracted, elongated heads had a significant stylistic impact on his subsequent figure and portrait paintings. It is fitting that this particular head, with its strong connection to African sculpture, was originally owned by Frank Burty Haviland, an American painter living in France (and former associate of Alfred Stieglitz and Marius de Zayas), whose African art collection was known to Modigliani. In addition to African art, Modigliani’s sculptures also reflect his knowledge of ancient Cycladic, Sumerian, Egyptian, and Greek art.


york nineteen years 1942 acquired florene schoenborn husband samuel marx

Ventriloquist and Crier in the Moor, 1923
Paul Klee (German, 1879–1940)
Watercolor and transferred printing ink on paper, bordered with ink

15 1/4 x 11 in. (38.7 x 27.9 cm)
The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.35)
© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

NOT ON VIEW Last Updated July 27, 2012

Imaginery beasts float within a transparent ventriloquist who appears to be all belly—except, of course, for a pair of legs, tiny arms, and a sort of head without a mouth. The little creatures inside the ventriloquist might symbolize the odd noises and voices that seem to emanate from him. The moor is indicated by the background grid of warm earth colors that turns dark toward the center and against which the figure, as part of this grid, stands out like a light-colored bubble in clear reds and blues. As if attracted by the animal sounds above him, a stray fish is about to enter a net dangling from the lower part of the ventriloquist’s anatomy—perhaps to join the menagerie within.

sounds stray fish enter net dangling ventriloquists anatomyperhaps join menagerie

Berlin Street, 1931
George Grosz (American, born Germany, 1893–1959)
Oil on canvas

32 x 23 5/8 in. (81.3 x 60 cm)
Hugo Kastor Fund, 1963 (63.220)
© Estate of George Grosz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

NOT ON VIEW Last Updated July 27, 2012

After serving during World War I, Grosz settled in Berlin and joined the Dada movement. Far more political than their counterparts in Zurich or Paris, the Berlin Dadaists turned their art against local figures and institutions of authority. In paintings, watercolors, and collages, Grosz mixed the schematic simplicities of popular illustration with Expressionist distortion, Futurist fragmentation, and the mordant accuracy of the realism known as the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). In Grosz’s art, the modern city is a hellish, jostling place overpopulated by swinish capitalists, brutish soldiers, and degraded workers. Women are prostitutes or nouveaux riches hags.

Although he had broken with the Dadaists by 1923, Grosz continued to depict his fellow citizens as automatons animated by greed, cruelty, and ghoulish lust. In this painting, well-dressed denizens of Berlin are shown against the backdrop of a restaurant whose patrons can be glimpsed through the red velvet curtain of the window display. A beggar, one of the two million crippled war veterans who roamed the streets, sits on the lower left holding up his hat. By the end of 1930, there were five million people without a job in Germany.


During the early 1900s, the aesthetics of traditional African sculpture became a powerful influence among European artists who formed an avant-garde in the development of modern art. In France, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and their School of Paris friends blended the highly stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures with painting styles derived from the post-Impressionist works of Cézanne and Gauguin. The resulting pictorial flatness, vivid color palette, and fragmented Cubist shapes helped to define early modernism. While these artists knew nothing of the original meaning and function of the West and Central African sculptures they encountered, they instantly recognized the spiritual aspect of the composition and adapted these qualities to their own efforts to move beyond the naturalism that had defined Western art since the Renaissance.

Denise Murrell
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University
Murrell, Denise. “African Influences in Modern Art”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (April 2008)

Further Reading
  • FitzGerald, Michael. Picasso and American Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • LaGamma, Alisa, ed. Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007.
  • Messinger, Lisa Mintz, Lisa Gail Collins, and Rachel Mustalish. African-American Artists, 1929–1945. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003.
  • Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams. Exhibition catalogue. London: Royal Academy of Arts,, 2004.
  • Rewald, Sabine. Twentieth Century Modern Masters: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989.
  • Rubin, William, ed. “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art. 2 vols. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984.
  • Vogel, Susan M. Primitivism Revisited: After the End of an Idea. New York: Sean Kelly Gallery, 2007.


Previous Post
Leave a comment


  1. Reblogged this on davidburnham10 and commented:
    This is a very insightful blog. I enjoy the detail of “The Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Collection.” The description of the piece is amazing. I enjoyed reading about how different colors of the piece have different meanings.


    • Latti Ice

       /  September 8, 2014

      I’m glad you liked it David; follow the link to the Museum, there is so much more.


  2. Reblogged this on Discovering the Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas and commented:
    Excellent post dissecting the African influence in works by Matisse, Picasso, and other famous artist. It is amazing how what was then considered “primitive” art essentially gave birth to early modernism.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: