On the face of it, the energy--even the frenzy--of a dance, particularly a ''round'' like this where the dancers are caught up in a self-perpetuating and linked unity of movement, might be thought scarcely compatible with ''serenity.'' And yet serenity was precisely the avowed aim of Matisse's art in 1909 when he made this full-scale sketch for a great decoration commissioned by the Russian collector, Shchukin.
As often happens in any study of Matisse, he preempts any conclusive written statement one might make, by his own. He wrote at the time (with the sonority of a manifesto):
''We are moving towards serenity by simplification of ideas and means. Our only object is wholeness. We must learn, perhaps relearn, to express ourselves by means of line. Plastic art will inspire the most direct emotion possible by the simplest means . . . three colors for a big panel of the 'Dance'; blue for the sky, pink for the bodies, green for the hill.'' Nothing, as it happened, could have run more counter to the fragmentations of ''cubism,'' in the ascendant in Paris, at the time, for it seemed to positively generate complexities and indirection. But Matisse was also reacting against his own recent past, the excited dashes of contrasted colours and patches so characteristic of ''fauvism.'' He had actually been reacting against this agitated evocation of sunlight for a number of years before ''La Danse.'' In 1905-06 he had painted a picture called ''Bonheur de Vivre,'' and in this had tried for ''plain flat colours'' to replace ''the vibrato with a more responsive , more direct harmony, simple and frank enough to provide . . . a restful surface.''
Matisse was a slow, thoughtful painter. ''La Danse,'' which takes your breath away because it seems to have a facility entirely without contrivance, a startling unplanned immediacy, is, in fact, far from spontaneous. For a start, it is an enlarged and altered version of a ring of dancers in the far background of his own earlier ''Bonheur de Vivre.'' Before that, it relates (and I suspect by no means unconsciously) to a whole extended history of painting, drawings, reliefs and decorations of dancers in a ring. Raphael, Mantegna, Poussin, Rubens , Blake and - most pertinently for Matisse--the sculptor Rodin were just a few of the artists who had found an appealing subject in dancers circling with linked hands, their arms forming a wave-like undulation across the picture surface. These artists were undoubtedly aware of ancient Greek and Roman sculptural and decorative enjoyment of the movement of dance, either ecstatic and fast or measured and dignified, indicating the exuberance of peasant festivities or the beauty of such mythical figures as the ''Three Graces.''
These historical precedents make the apparently unpremeditated freedom and freshness of Matisse's painting seem quite extraordinary, and point to one of the most interesting paradoxes of Matisse's art: it was always, he said, a ''struggle''--and yet the finest of his works look as though they have sprung spontaneously into being with the unquestioned directness of a flower opening or a dancer turning.
After ''La Danse,'' his painting achieved the kind of untroubled but brilliant effect of simple colour for which he had been looking. There was an element of breakthrough in painting ''La Danse,'' and it had lasting value for him. While the final version was bound for Moscow, this sketch (now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York) remained for a number of years in Matisse's studio, and even, on one occasion, was absorbed into a still life of nasturtiums as a lively but not dominant backcloth. As Lawrence Gowing perceptively observed , Matisse had ''reclaimed it for the stillness of his own private world.''
But how can ''La Danse'' itself have been thought by its painter to move in the direction of ''serenity''? The answer seems to be that he was talking primarily about the ordering of forms and colours on a canvas, and more than all the representations of the dance which preceded his painting, Matisse's opened out the subject into a pattern of shapes and curves spread widely and strongly over the large breathing space of a big canvas. The three colours, the economy of line, the undistracted concentration on the five joined figures, show an assurance and breadth which might, to the painter, have seemed a new calmness and serenity. Certainly the method by which he has presented the furious grace of his subject is utterly clear and unconfused, assisted by the eliminating effect of quick movement. And ''La Danse,'' in his hands, has become the perfect theme for an artist whose ''only object is wholeness.''