The sources for "Dance" are multiple, reaching back into antiguity (maenad figures on greek vases; Graeco-Roman images of the Three Graces). Matisse furthermore told interviewers that had been stimulated by observing country dancers at Collioure and Parisians dancing at the Moulin de la Galette, an indication that he kept his eye on contemporary life while developing his modern mythologies. The pale, realistic flesh tones of the five women in the full-size sketch of "Dance" give way in the final version to a violent red-ocher suggestive of red-figure Greek vases, with the result that a highly saturated contrast is achieved with the green ground and blue sky. Several crucial lines are strengthened in the definitive canvas, emphasizing the tensions and relaxations of movement. The hands of the figures at the left and in the foreground are brought closer together, creating a tension of contact rivaling Michelangelo's "Creation of Man".
Among modern prototypes for this celebration of Dionysiac energy, the most notable is Carpeaux's sculpture group on the facade of the Paris Opera. The closest treatment of the theme in terms of time was, however, a large, little-known painting of 1905-6 by his friend Derain. Interestingly, Matisse had already treated this theme separately in the cylindrical wood relief "Dance", 1907, which contains only three figures.
Matisse here poses a major aesthetic problem-the relation of the design to the image - in a way that he had never done before with such emphasis. This forceful tension between the image and the design is complemented by the stark contrast of positive figural solid and negative spatial void. Given that at this moment the pioneer Cubists, Picasso and Barque, were developing a style that blurred when it did not disrupt the familiar boundaries between solid and void, Matisse's style here emerges as strikingly anti-Cubist.