Henri Matisse: Life And Works

Henri Matisse: life and works

Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse (31 December 1869 – 3 November 1954) was a French artist, known for both his use of colour and his fluid and original draughtsmanship. He was a draughtsman, printmaker, and sculptor, but is known primarily as a painter.

Matisse is commonly regarded, along with Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, as one of the three artists who helped to define the revolutionary developments in the plastic arts throughout the opening decades of the twentieth century, responsible for significant developments in painting and sculpture. Although he was initially labelled a Fauve (wild beast), by the 1920s he was increasingly hailed as an upholder of the classical tradition in French painting. His mastery of the expressive language of colour and drawing, displayed in a body of work spanning over a half-century, won him recognition as a leading figure in modern art.


Henri Matisse biography

Henri Matisse art

Henri Matisse facts

Henri Matisse paintings

Henri Matisse quotes

Henri Matisse biography

The French painter and sculptor Henri Matisse was one of the great initiators of the modern art movement, which uses the combination of bold primary colors and free, simple forms. He was also the most outstanding personality of the first revolution in twentieth century art—Fauvism (style of art that uses color and sometimes distorted forms to send its message).

Childhood and art education

Henri Matisse was born on December 31, 1869, in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, France. After the war of 1870–71 his family moved to Bohain-en-Vermandois, France. Matisse’s father was a corn merchant, his mother an amateur painter. Matisse studied law from 1887 to 1891 and then decided to go to Paris, France, to become a painter. He worked under Adolphe William Bouguereau (1825–1905) at the Académie Julian in Paris, but he left in 1892 to enter the studio of Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he studied until 1897. Moreau was a liberal teacher who did not interfere with the individuality of his pupils. He encouraged his students to look at nature and to paint outdoors, as well as to frequently visit the museums. Matisse copied paintings in the Louvre and painted outdoors in Paris.

Begins with impressionism and moves to Fauvism

About 1898, under the influence of impressionism (an art form using dabs of paint in primary colors to create an image representing a brief glance rather than a long study), the colors Matisse used became lighter, as in his seascapes of Belle-Île and landscapes of Corsica and the Côte d’Azur (coast of France on the Mediterranean Sea). Although impressionist in character, these early works of Matisse already showed a noticeable emphasis on color and simplified forms. Matisse married in 1898 and visited London, England, in the same year to study. On his return to Paris he attended classes at the Académie Carrière, where he met André Derain (1880–1954). Matisse created his first sculptures in 1899.

From 1900 Matisse struggled financially for years. In 1902 the artist, his wife Amélie, and their three children were forced to return to Bohain. In 1903 the Salon d’Automne was founded, and Matisse exhibited there. From 1900 to 1903, under the influence of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Matisse produced still lifes and nudes. In 1904 he had his first one-man show at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard in Paris and spent the summer in Saint-Tropez, France. In 1905 Matisse painted with Derain at Collioure; the works Matisse created there are excellent examples of Fauvism in their bright colors and flat patterning.

Fauve period

Matisse’s Fauve period extended from 1905 to 1908, during which time he completed a brilliant series of masterpieces. At the 1905 Salon d’Automne these paintings, known as the Fauves, made their first public appearance. In 1906 Matisse’s Joie de vivre was exhibited at the Indépendants; the painting gained him the title of the “King of the Fauves.”

Matisse made his first trip to North Africa in 1906. His Blue Nude, or Souvenir de Biskra (1907), is a memento of the journey. In this painting he experimented with contrapposto (an S-curve pose), and he used the same form in the sculpture Reclining Nude I (1907). He had established a studio in the former Convent des Oiseaux in 1905; this became a meeting place for foreign artists. He developed into the leader of an international art school with mainly German and Scandinavian pupils who spread his ideas. His “Notes of a Painter,” published in La Grande revue in 1908, became the artistic handbook of a whole generation. Matisse was a pleasant man who looked more like a shy government official than an artist. He never accepted any fees for his teaching so that he was not obligated to staying in one place. He did not want commitments to interfere with his creative activity.

Change in style

Between 1908 and 1913 Matisse made journeys to Spain, Germany, Russia, and Africa. In Munich, Germany, he saw an exhibition of Islamic art (1910), and in Moscow, Russia, he studied Russian icons (1911). Russian collectors began to buy his paintings. He produced five sculptures—heads of Jeannette—during 1910 and 1911, which show a resemblance to African masks and sculptures. His Moroccan journey of 1911–12 had a positive influence on his development, which is seen in Dance, Music, the Red Fishes, and the series of interiors recording his studio and its contents. They show a stern and compact style with blacks and grays, mauves, greens, and ochers (brown tones). Great Matisse exhibitions were held in 1910, 1913, and 1919.

By 1919 Matisse had become an internationally known master. His style at that time was characterized by the use of pure colors and their complex interplay (harmonies and contrasts); the two-dimensionality of the picture surface enriched by decorative patterns taken from wallpapers, Oriental carpets, and fabrics; the human figures being treated in the same manner as the decorative elements. The goal of Matisse’s art was the portrayal of the joyful living in contrast to the stresses of our technological age. Between 1920 and 1925 he completed a series of odalisques (female slaves), such as the Odalisque with Raised Arms; this period has been called an oasis of lightness.

Last years

In 1925 Matisse was made chevalier, the lowest ranking member of the Legion of Honor, and in 1927 he received the first prize at the Carnegie International Exhibition at Pittsburgh. After a visit to Tahiti, Matisse was a guest at the Barnes Foundation at Merion, Pennsylvania, and accepted Dr. Barnes’s commission to paint a mural, The Dance (1932–1933), for the hall of the foundation. During the next years he produced paintings, drawings, book illustrations (etchings and lithographs), sculptures (he made fifty-four bronzes altogether), ballet sets, and designs for tapestry and glass. In 1944 Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) arranged for him to be represented in the Salon d’Automne to celebrate the liberation of Paris from Nazi rule.

Matisse considered the peak of his life-work to be his design and decoration of the Chapel of the Rosary for the Dominican nuns at Vence, France (1948–1951). He designed the black-and-white tile pictures, stained glass, altar crucifix, and vestments (ceremonial robes). At the time of the consecration (declaration of sacredness) of the Vence chapel, Matisse held a large retrospective exhibition (a look back at the work he created) in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The ultimate step in the art of Matisse was taken in his papiers découpés, abstract cutouts in colored paper, executed in the mid-1940s, for example, the Negro Boxer, Tristesse du roi, and Jazz. The master died on November 3, 1954, in Cimiez, France, near Nice.

Henri Matisse art

Henri Matisse is widely regarded as the greatest colorist of the twentieth century and as a rival to Pablo Picasso in the importance of his innovations. He emerged as a Post-Impressionist, and first achieved prominence as the leader of the French movement Fauvism. Although interested in Cubism, he rejected it, and instead sought to use color as the foundation for expressive, decorative, and often monumental paintings. As he once controversially wrote, he sought to create an art that would be “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair.” Still life and the nude remained favorite subjects throughout his career; North Africa was also an important inspiration, and, towards the end of his life, he made an important contribution to collage with a series of works using cut-out shapes of color. He is also highly regarded as a sculptor.

Key Ideas

Matisse used pure colors and the white of exposed canvas to create a light-filled atmosphere in his Fauve paintings. Rather than using modeling or shading to lend volume and structure to his pictures, Matisse used contrasting areas of pure, unmodulated color. These ideas continued to be important to him throughout his career.

His art was important in endorsing the value of decoration in modern art. However, although he is popularly regarded as a painter devoted to pleasure and contentment, his use of color and pattern is often deliberately disorientating and unsettling.

Matisse was heavily influenced by art from other cultures. Having seen several exhibitions of Asian art, and having traveled to North Africa, he incorporated some of the decorative qualities of Islamic art, the angularity of African sculpture, and the flatness of Japanese prints into his own style.

Matisse once declared that he wanted his art to be one “of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter,” and this aspiration was an important influence on some, such as Clement Greenberg, who looked to art to provide shelter from the disorientation of the modern world.

The human figure was central to Matisse’s work both in sculpture and painting. Its importance for his Fauvist work reflects his feeling that the subject had been neglected in Impressionism, and it continued to be important to him. At times he fragmented the figure harshly, at other times he treated it almost as a curvilinear, decorative element. Some of his work reflects the mood and personality of his models, but more often he used them merely as vehicles for his own feelings, reducing them to ciphers in his monumental designs.

Luxe, Calme, et Volupte (1904-05)

Luxe, Calme, et Volupte

Artwork description & Analysis: The title of this painting is taken from the refrain of Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Invitation to a Voyage (1857), in which a man invites his lover to travel with him to paradise. The landscape is likely based on the view from Paul Signac’s house in Saint-Tropez, where Matisse was vacationing. Most of the women are nude (in the manner of a traditional classical idyll), but one woman – thought to represent the painter’s wife – wears contemporary dress. This is Matisse’s only major painting in the Neo-Impressionist mode, and its technique was inspired by the Pointillism of Paul Signac and Georges Seurat. He differs from the approach of those painters, however, in the way in which he outlines figures to give them emphasis.
Oil on canvas – Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris

The Woman with a Hat (1905)

The Woman with a Hat

Artwork description & Analysis: Matisse attacked conventional portraiture with this image of his wife. Amelie’s pose and dress are typical for the day, but Matisse roughly applied brilliant color across her face, hat, dress, and even the background. This shocked his contemporaries when he sent the picture to the 1905 Salon d’Automne. Leo Stein called it, “the nastiest smear of paint I had ever seen,” yet he and Gertrude bought it for the importance they knew it would have to modern painting.
Oil on canvas – The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Joy of Life (Le Bonheur de Vivre) (1905-06)

Joy of Life (Le Bonheur de Vivre)

During his Fauve years Matisse often painted landscapes in the south of France during the summer and worked up ideas developed there into larger compositions upon his return to Paris. Joy of Live, the second of his important imaginary compositions, is typical of these. He used a landscape he had painted in Collioure to provide the setting for the idyll, but it is also influenced by ideas drawn from Watteau, Poussin, Japanese woodcuts, Persian miniatures, and 19th century Orientalist images of harems. The scene is made up of independent motifs arranged to form a complete composition. The massive painting and its shocking colors received mixed reviews at the Salon des Indépendants. Critics noted its new style — broad fields of color and linear figures, a clear rejection of Paul Signac’s celebrated Pointillism.
Oil on canvas – The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania

Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra) (1907)

Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra)

Artwork description & Analysis: Matisse was working on a sculpture, Reclining Nude I, when he accidentally damaged the piece. Before repairing it, he painted it in blue against a background of palm fronds. The nude is hard and angular, both a tribute to Cézanne and to the sculpture Matisse saw in Algeria. She is also a deliberate response to nudes seen in the Paris Salon – ugly and hard rather than soft and pretty. This was the last Matisse painting bought by Leo and Gertrude Stein.
Oil on canvas – The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection 

The Moroccans (1915-16)

The Moroccans

Artwork description & Analysis: Matisse planned this picture as early as 1913, and it recalls visits made to Morocco around this time. A figure sits on the right with a back to us, fruit lies in the left foreground, and a mosque rises in the background beyond a terrace. Matisse said that he occasionally used black in his pictures in order to simplify the composition, though here it undoubtedly also recalls the stark shadows produced by the strong sunshine in the region. Like Bathers by a River (1917), The Moroccans was significantly influenced by Picasso’s Cubism, and some have even compared it to Picasso’s Three Musicians (1921). Although it employs the same brilliant color as much of Matisse’s work, its use of abstract motifs and rigid diagrammatic composition is unusual, and has attracted considerable speculation. Rather than use the scene as an opportunity for decoration, it is as if Matisse has tried to find the means to chart and map it.
Oil on canvas – MoMA, New York

Bathers by a River (1917)

Bathers by a River

Artwork description & Analysis: Matisse regarded this picture as one of the most important in his career, and it is certainly one of his most puzzling. He worked on it at intervals over eight years, and it passed through a variety of transformations. The painting evolved out of a commission from Matisse’s Russian patron, Sergei Shchuckin, for two decorative panels on the subjects of dance and music, and, initially, the scheme for the picture resembled the idyllic scenes he had previously depicted in paintings such as Joy of Life (1905-06). However, his transformations gradually turned it into more of a confrontation with Cubism, and it is for this reason that the picture has been the subject of intense scrutiny. Although Matisse rejected Cubism, he certainly felt challenged by it, and this picture – along with many he painted from 1913 to 1917 – seems to be influenced by the style, since it is very unlike his previous, more decorative work. It is far more concerned with faithful representation of the structure of the human figure, and its position in space. The painting might be compared to The Backs series (1909-31), which also preoccupied Matisse the years he was working on Bathers, since both address the problem of depicting a three-dimensional figure against a flat background.

Oil on canvas – Art Institute of Chicago 

Henri Matisse facts

1. Originally, Matisse studied and trained to become a lawyer.

He graduated from law school in Paris and worked as a clerk in a law office in 1889.

2. In 1889, at the age of 21, Matisse suffered from an acute appendicitis that would actually lead him to discover his passion for creating art.

After he underwent surgery, he had a very long recovery time. To ease his boredom, his mother gave him a paint box and the rest was history. After he recovered, he returned to work at the law office but found it difficult to give up his painting. Every morning before he went to work he attended drawing classes and was constantly painting during his lunch breaks and throughout the night. It consumed his life.

3. Matisse’s styles changed vastly at the beginning of his career after encounters with very famous artists.

At first, he was mainly painting landscapes and still-lifes in a more traditional style. After meeting the Australian artist, John Peter Russell, Matisse began to create works that showed influence of the Impressionist movement. His greatest influence was the French artist Paul Cezanne. He eventually became a part of the Fauves, or wild beasts, movement and exhibited his paintings alongside artists such as Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy and Gustave Moreau.

4. Matisse was ‘frienemies’ with Pablo Picasso.

They did not like each other’s paintings at first; however, they both seemed to sense the power each had to challenge and stimulate creativity within the other. Throughout their lives each would keep a close eye on the other’s work. They would often produce the same subjects and even sometimes works with the same titles. The artists had an exhibition at The Tate Modern in London, England that concentrated on the juxtaposition of their similar works. They never actually met face to face at this time. Their relationship could be described as a competition or a meticulously plotted chess game. Matisse once referred to it as a boxing match. In 1906, the two artists finally met. The meeting was set up by the well-known American art collector and avant-garde writer, Gertrude Stein. Regardless of their competitive nature, both ended up respecting the other as a person and a creative being.

Matisse working on his artwork in bed

5. Matisse was in a wheel chair during his later years; which resulted in him creating some of his most well-known cut-out pieces.

After he could no longer stand for extended periods of time, Matisse began creating works using a pair of scissors and paper. He used a long stick to assemble them on his walls until he was happy with the arrangement. He called this technique ‘painting with scissors’.

Henri Matisse quotes

Creativity takes courage. 

A picture must possess a real power to generate light and for a long time now I’ve been conscious of expressing myself through light or rather in light.

A young woman has young claws, well sharpened. If she has character, that is. And if she hasn’t so much the worse for you. 

An artist must never be a prisoner. Prisoner? An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success, etc. 

An artist must possess Nature. He must identify himself with her rhythm, by efforts that will prepare the mastery which will later enable him to express himself in his own language.

Cutting into color reminds me of the sculptor’s direct carving. 

Derive happiness in oneself from a good day’s work, from illuminating the fog that surrounds us. 

Drawing is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence. 

He who loves, flies, runs, and rejoices; he is free and nothing holds him back.

I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.

I don’t know whether I believe in God or not. I think, really, I’m some sort of Buddhist. But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer. 

I don’t paint things. I only paint the difference between things. 

I have always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have a light joyousness of springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost me.

I would like to recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it.

I wouldn’t mind turning into a vermilion goldfish. 

Impressionism is the newspaper of the soul. 

In love, the one who runs away is the winner. 

In the beginning you must subject yourself to the influence of nature. You must be able to walk firmly on the ground before you start walking on a tightrope. 

Instinct must be thwarted just as one prunes the branches of a tree so that it will grow better. 

It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else.

It is only after years of preparation that the young artist should touch color – not color used descriptively, that is, but as a means of personal expression. 

There are always flowers for those who want to see them. 

There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.

Time extracts various values from a painter’s work. When these values are exhausted the pictures are forgotten, and the more a picture has to give, the greater it is.

If my story were ever to be written truthfully from start to finish, it would amaze everyone.

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

With color one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft.

You study, you learn, but you guard the original naivete. It has to be within you, as desire for drink is within the drunkard or love is within the lover. 

References and useful Resources

  1. notablebiographies.com
  2. theartstory.org
  3. baterbys.com
  4. henrimatisse.org
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