How Modern Art Brought Us Today’s Hottest Pool Designs

Modern style is the hottest design trend in swimming pools and outdoor living spaces. It’s a style with deep roots in Twentieth Century Modern art. You can see how Henri Matisse contributed to the development and spread this modern style in three museum visits: “The Dance” (1933) at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, “The Swimming Pool” (1952) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), and now through January 29, 2023, “Matisse in the 1930s,” a special exhibit at The Philadelphia Art Museum (PAM).

MODERN STYLE—Top: “Dance: Study for the Barnes Mural (Second Version)” on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to ”Matisse in the 1930’s,” a special exhibit currently at The Philadelphia Art Museum. Middle: “The Dance” by Matisse, at The Barnes Foundation. Bottom: “The Swimming Pool” by Matisse, at the Museum of Modern Art.

A Philadelphia Start

This Modern art story and your museum visits start in Philadelphia. If you go before January 29, start with the PAM exhibit. It puts the entire saga of Matisse’s visit to Philadelphia into context. The exhibit takes us from his earlier work to that fateful visit in 1930, where Albert Barnes changed the arc of his career, to the remarkable works that followed in one remarkable decade.

An Introduction to The Dance

With a commission to create a mural for the Barnes Foundation, Matisse was inspired to make something that hadn’t been done before. He named it “The Dance,” and the show includes an extensive collection of conceptual drawings, paintings, photos—even a movie—that document the mural’s creation and the influence it had on the work that follows.

Matisse had to work on a monumental scale to fill a space some 45 feet wide and 17 feet high. To expedite the design process, he created full sized, pre-colored cut papers to position and re-position the images that would dance across the Barnes wall. This cut paper expedient would evolve into an art form that distinguishes much of his later work.

Movement in Art and Architecture

We’ve covered in previous articles the essential role of visual movement, and how “straight lines, curves and angles create a sense of movement in our minds.” It’s one of the six principles of design in landscape architecture. Pleasing outdoor spaces make artful use of line and other basic design elements, such as shape, color and texture, to bring movement to life. It’s the seeing—really the sensing or feeling—of movement that invites us to stay and explore a space.

The works in the exhibit’s “Artist and Model” section demonstrate Matisse’s progression toward more abstract figures. With “The Dance,” bodies are translated into flat shapes seeming to dance across canvas and walls. In another section, “A Mural in Motion,” Matisse goes on to create designs for the dance itself. You can watch a film and see the costumes, stage curtain, and backdrop he designed for Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo. Note how the backdrop is topped by three great vaults, much like the space at the Barnes where “The Dance” is installed.

Movement Captured in Matisse’s Swimming Pool

The heat was too much for a man his age. So, in the summer of 1952, Henri Matisse left the swimming pool he often visited in Cannes. Returning home to Nice, he announced he would “make myself my own pool.” He then captured in paper cutouts his memories of pool and swimmers. He set his pool in place on his dining room walls, in stationary, two-dimensional space; yet filled with magical blue shapes, floating, swimming, and sometimes breaking free of the imaginary pool’s straight edges.

In this brief YouTube video, MoMA’s Josephine McReynolds reflects on Henri Matisse’s “Swimming Pool” and how the work evokes thoughts of childhood and long days of play in a swimming pool.

After his death in 1954, the “The Swimming Pool” eventually made its way to New York, where it was recently restored at MoMA and is a part of its Permanent Collection. Now, 70 years after its creation, “The Swimming Pool” and the Modern design Matisse embodied continue to resonate with us because, well, it still feels so modern. You can jump into Matisse’s pool in The David Geffen Galleries, located on MoMA’s 4th Floor, room 406.


Subscribe Today

Get the latest trends sent to your email inbox!


    Email Address: