Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
Henri Matisse is known primarily for his painting, although he excelled at sculpting, printmaking and was a superb draughtsman. In his search to balance colour and form, Matisse became one of the two foremost artists of the modern period. Readily identified with the Fauvist movement early in his career and with gouaches decoupes in his later years, Matisse was a constantly evolving artist.
Born to in 1869 to grain merchant parents in Le Cateau-Cambresis, Matisse went to Paris in 1887 to study law and became a court administrator after completing his studies. Matisse found his true calling after suffering a bout of appendicitis. While in his sickbed, his mother brought Matisse art supplies to entertain him through his convalescence. Matisse described it as “a kind of paradise” and decided to pursue art, much to his father’s disappointment. Matisse’s unusual style may be partly attributed to his mother, who advised him not to listen to the rules of art, but instead to his own emotions.
In 1891, Matisse enrolled to study art in Paris at the Academie Julian, where he started off painting in the traditional Fleming style. There he became fairly proficient at executing still lifes and landscapes, tending to use a rather dark and gloomy palette. From 1897-1898 he visited painter John Peter Russell, who changed Matisse’s style completely by introducing him to both Van Gogh and Impressionism. Matisse was also influenced by Edouard Manet, Nicolas Poussin, Antoine Watteau and the post-Impressionists Signac, Gauguin and Cezanne. Much of his work from 1899-1905 employed pointillist technique that he adopted from Signac, and it was during this time that he began to establish his own style.
Matisse exhibited his first solo exhibition without much success at Vollard’s gallery in 1904. He then moved south to the French Riviera to work with Andre Derain in 1905, at which time he became more pronounced in his preference for expressive, bright colours. In that same year, along with a group of artists now known at the ‘Fauves’ or wild beasts, Matisse exhibited at the Salon d’Automne. The Fauvist style was characterized by its bold and often illogical use of colour. The exhibit garnered much condemnation, but also did attract some favourable attention and Matisse sold Woman with a Hat which did much to bolster his confidence as Matisse did find it hard at this time to sell his works and provide for his family.
The Fauvist movement began to decline in 1906, but Matisse was unaffected by this and some his best work was created from 1906-1917. The Joy of Life (1905-6) was created at this time and is considered one of the most important paintings of the 20th century. The brilliant use of colour, stylistic lines and celebration of femininity exemplify much of what set Matisse apart and turned him into one of the most renowned and respected artists of his era.
Matisse met Picasso around 1904 and they became lifelong friends and rivals. They are constantly compared and there are many similarities between their works, denoting their great respect for one another as artists. Together they became leaders of the revolution in art, and in doing so became intricately intertwined both in that art and in the public consciousness of what modern art is today.
Matisse moved to a suburb of Nice in 1917 and for the next decade his work took a softer and more relaxed approach, which was typical of much of the art created in the post World War I era. After 1930, he returned to his previous style with a renewed vigour. In 1941 he had surgery for cancer and a colostomy was performed, after this he was confined to a wheelchair. As he could no longer stand in front of an easel he developed a new way to convey his art by creating cut paper collages, or gouaches decoupe. He called this “painting with scissors” and his Blue Nudes series is a prime example of this technique. He continued to create his art in this way until his death of a heart attack in 1954 at the age of 84.
Matisse used colours like no one else ever had and had a profound impact on art in his time and for generations to come. Matisse once said he wanted his art to be like “a good armchair”, comfortable and something to calm and soothe the mind. Matisse was known for gravitating towards beauty and drawing it out of his subjects, his brilliant colours and stylized lines helped create Modern Art and changed the art world and it’s perceptions as we know it.
“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 labours it has cost me.”