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Henri Matisse
1869 - 1954

The French painter and sculptor Henri Matisse was one of the great initiators of the modern art movement and the most outstanding personality of the first revolution in 20th-century art - Fauvism.


About the turn of the 20th century there were several artists who simultaneously and independently of each other developed a taste for strong color. This liking was derived from the work of Vincent Van Gogh, that of the divisionists (or pointillists), and Paul Gauguin's experience of primitivism in Tahiti. The combination of a primary color scheme with the primitive approach to visual experience, in which simplification and distortion enhance expressiveness, resulted in Fauvism, which initiated the modern movement.

The greatest master of modern sophistication, Henri Matisse, learned from the manner in which children draw how to see natural objects in an innocent way, as if perceiving them for the first time. Matisse was the artist who fulfilled the national tradition of French painting in the modern movement. When cubism entered the arena as a new alternative to the art of the past, what entered with it was the analytical, cerebral quality in modern art. Fauvism, on the other hand, represented in its first stage the victory of sensualism, which particularly through color transmitted its message with a strong direct impact. Fauvism developed in the oeuvre of Matisse into a classical art. A balance was achieved between color, expressing light, and form, presenting objects as pure forms in a two-dimensional manner without any illusionism.

Henri Matisse was born on Dec. 31, 1869, at Le Cateau-Cambrésis. After the war of 1870-71 his family returned to Bohain-en-Vermandois. Matisse's father was a corn merchant, his mother an amateur painter. He studied law from 1887 to 1891 and then decided to go to Paris and become a painter. He worked under Adolphe William Bouguereau at the Académie Julian in Paris, but he left in 1892 to enter the studio of Gustave Moreau 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, among whom were Georges Rouault, Albert Marquet, Henri Manguin, Charles Camoin, and Jean Puy. Moreau encouraged his students to look at nature and to paint outdoors, as well as to frequent the museums. Matisse copied pictures by Philippe de Champaigne, Nicolas Poussin, and Jean Baptiste Chardin in the Louvre and painted outdoors in Paris.

About 1898, under the influence of impressionism, Matisse's palette became lighter, as in his seascapes of Belle-Île and landscapes of Corsica and the Côte d'Azur. Although impressionist in character, these early works of Matisse already show a noticeable emphasis on color and simplified forms. Matisse married in 1898 and visited London in the same year to study the works of J. M. W. Turner on Camille Pissarro's advice. On his return to Paris he attended classes at the Académie Carrière, where he met André Derain. Matisse created his first sculptures in 1899.

From 1900 Matisse suffered great material hardship for years. In 1902 the artist, his wife, 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, Matisse produced still lifes and nudes which excel in clarity and harmony. In 1904 he had his first one-man show at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard in Paris and spent the summer in Saint-Tropez, where Paul Signac lived. Signac bought Matisse's famous picture Luxe, calme et volupté (1904-1905), which was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. In 1905 Matisse painted with Derain at Collioure; the works Matisse executed there are the very essence of Fauvism in their vivid colors and flat patterning.

Fauve Period

Matisse's Fauve period extended from 1905 to 1908, during which time he executed a magnificent series of masterpieces. Three groups of artists made up the Fauvist movement, centered on Matisse. The first group was that of the Atelier Moreau and the Académie Carrière: Marquet, Manguin, Camoin, and Puy. The second group consisted of the two artists who painted at Châtou: Maurice Vlaminck and Derain. The third was the Le Havre group: Othon Friesz, Raoul Dufy, and Georges Braque. The Dutch painter Kees van Dongen also belonged to the Fauves. At the 1905 Salon d'Automne the Fauves made their first public appearance. In 1906 Matisse's Joie de vivre was exhibited at the Indépendants; the painting, which is arranged in a series of unbroken surfaces related by color harmonies and embodies his new ideas, gained him the title of the King of the Fauves. The American collector Leo Stein began to buy his work.

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 undulating 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 credo of a whole generation. Matisse was an amiable man and looked more like a shy government official than an artist. He never accepted any fees for his tuition so that he might remain free to take his leave at any time, should this commitment interfere with his creative activity.

Change in Style

Between 1908 and 1913 Matisse made journeys to Spain, Germany, Russia, and Africa. In Munich he saw the exhibition of Islamic art (1910), and in Moscow he studied Russian icons (1911). Russian collectors began to buy his pictures. He produced five sculptures - heads of Jeannette - during 1910 and 1911, which show affinities with African masks and sculptures. His Moroccan journey of 1911-12 had a decisive influence on his development, exemplified 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. 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 sophisticated interplay (harmonies and contrasts); the two-dimensionality of the picture surface enriched by decorative patterns taken from wallpapers, Oriental carpets, and fabrics; and the musicality of outlines and arabesques, the human figures being treated in the same manner as the decorative elements. The goal of Matisse's art was the portrayal of the joy of living in contrast to the stresses of our technological age. Between 1920 and 1925 he executed a series of odalisques, such as the Odalisque with Raised Arms; this period has been called an oasis of lightness.

Last Years

In 1925 Matisse was made chevalier of the Legion of Honour, 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, Pa., and accepted Dr. Barnes's commission to paint a mural, The Dance (1932-1933), for the hall of the foundation. A crescendo of work distinguished his life. He produced paintings, drawings, book illustrations (etchings and lithographs), sculptures (he made 54 bronzes altogether), ballet sets, and designs for tapestry and glass. He spent the war years in the south of France. In 1944 Pablo Picasso arranged for him to be represented in the Salon d'Automne to celebrate the Liberation.

Matisse considered the culmination of his lifework to be his design and decoration of the Chapel of the Rosary for the Dominican nuns at Vence (1948-1951). He designed the black-and-white tile pictures, stained glass, altar crucifix, and vestments. At the time of the consecration of the Vence chapel Matisse held a large retrospective exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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 Nov. 3, 1954, in Cimiez near Nice.


Henri Matisse was born in 1869, the year the Cutty Sark was launched. The year he died, 1954, the first hydrogen bomb exploded at Bikini Atoll. Not only did he live on, literally, from one world into another; he lived through some of the most traumatic political events in recorded history, the worst wars, the greatest slaughters, the most demented rivalries of ideology, without, it seems, turning a hair. Matisse never made a didactic painting or signed a manifesto, and there is scarcely one reference to a political event - let alone an expression of political opinion - to be found anywhere in his writings. Perhaps Matisse did suffer from fear and loathing like the rest of us, but there is no trace of them in his work. His studio was a world within the world: a place of equilibrium that, for sixty continuous years, produced images of comfort, refuge, and balanced satisfaction. Nowhere in Matisse's work does one feel a trace of the alienation and conflict which modernism, the mirror of our century, has so often reflected. His paintings are the equivalent to that ideal place, scaled away from the assaults and erosions of history, that Baudelaire imagined in his poem L'Invitation al Voyage:

Furniture gleaming with the sheen of years would grace our bedroom; the rarest flowers, mingling their odours with vague whiffs of amber, the painted ceilings, the fathomless mirrors, the splendour of the East ... all of that would speak, in secret, to our souls, in its gentle language. There, everything is order and beauty, luxury, calm and pleasure.

In its thoughtfulness, steady development, benign lucidity, and wide range of historical sources, Matisse's work utterly refutes the notion that the great discoveries of modernism were made by violently rejecting the past. His work was grounded in tradition - and in a much less restless and ironic approach to it than Picasso's. As a young man, having been a student of Odilon Redon's, he had closely studied the work of Manet and Cézanne; a small Cézanne Bathers, which he bought in 1899, became his talisman. Then around 1904 he got interested in the coloured dots of Seurat's Divisionism. Seurat was long dead by then, but Matisse became friends with his closest follower, Paul Signac. Signac's paintings of Saint-Tropez bay were an important influence on Matisse's work. So, perhaps, was the painting that Signac regarded as his masterpiece and exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1895, In the Time of Harmony, a big allegorical composition setting forth his anarchist beliefs. The painting shows a Utopian Arcadia of relaxation and farming by the sea, and it may have fused with the traditional fête champétre in Matisse's mind to produce his own awkward but important demonstration piece, Luxe, Calme et Volupte, 1904-5. In it, Matisse's literary interest in Baudelaire merged with his Arcadian fantasies, perhaps under the promptings of Signac's table-talk about the future Golden Age. One sees a picnic by the sea at Saint-Tropez, with a lateen-rigged boat and a cluster of bulbous, spotty nudes. It is not, to put it mildly, a very stirring piece of luxe, but it was Matisse's first attempt to make an image of the Mediterranean as a state of mind.

In 1905 Matisse went south again, to work with André Derain in the little coastal town of Collioure. At this point, his colour broke free. Just how free it became can be seen in The Open Window, Collioure, 1905. It is the first of the views through a window that would recur as a favourite Matissean motif. All the colour has undergone an equal distortion and keying up. The terracotta of flowerpots and the rusty red of masts and furled sails become a blazing Indian red: the reflections of the boats, turning at anchor through the razzle of light on the water, are pink; the green of the left wall, reflected in the open glazed door on the right, is heightened beyond expectation and picked up in the sky's tints. And the brushwork has a eupeptic, take-it-or-leave-it quality that must have seemed to deny craft even more than the comparatively settled way that Derain, his companion, was painting.

The new Matisses, seen in the autumn of 1905, were very shocking indeed. Even their handful of defenders were uncertain about them, while their detractors thought them barbaric. Particularly offensive was his use of this discordant colour in the familiar form of the salon portrait - even though the "victim" was his wife, posing in her best Edwardian hat.

There was some truth, if a very limited truth, to the cries of barbarism. Time and again, Matisse set down an image of a pre-civilized world, Eden before the Fall, inhabited by men and women with no history, languid as plants or energetic as animals. Then, as now, this image held great appeal for the over-civilized, and one such man was Matisse's biggest patron, the Moscow industrialist Sergey Shchukin, who at regular intervals would descend on Paris and clean his studio out. The relationship between Shchukin and Matisse, like the visits of Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe to France, was one of the components of a Paris-Moscow axis that would be destroyed forever by the Revolution. Shchukin commissioned Matisse to paint two murals for the grand staircase of his house in Moscow, the Trubetskoy Palace. Their themes were "Dance" and "Music".

Even when seen in a neutral museum setting, seventy years later, the primitive look of these huge paintings is still unsettling. On the staircase of the Trubetskoy Palace, they must have looked excessively foreign. Besides, to imagine their impact, one must remember the social structure that went with the word "Music" in late tsarist Russia. Music pervaded the culture at every level, but in Moscow and St. Petersburg it was the social art par excellence. Against this atmosphere of social ritual, glittering and adulatory, Matisse set his image of music at its origins - enacted not by virtuosi with managers and diamond studs but by five naked cavemen, pre-historical, almost presocial. A reed flute, a crude fiddle, the slap of hand on skin: it is a long way from the world of first nights, sables, and droshkies. Yet Matisse's editing is extraordinarily powerful; in allotting each of the elements, earth, sky, and body, its own local colour and nothing more, he gives the scene a riveting presence. Within that simplicity, boundless energy is discovered. The Dance is one of the few wholly convincing images of physical ecstasy made in the twentieth century. Matisse is said to have got the idea for it in Collioure in 1905, watching some fishermen and peasants on the beach in a circular dance called a sardana. But the sardana is a stately measure, and The Dance is more intense. That circle of stamping, twisting maenads takes you back down the line, to the red-figure vases of Mediterranean antiquity and, beyond them, to the caves. It tries to represent motions as ancient as dance itself.

The other side of this coin was an intense interest in civilized craft. Matisse loved pattern, and pattern within pattern: not only the suave and decorative forms of his own compositions but also the reproduction of tapestries, embroideries, silks, striped awnings, curlicues, mottles, dots, and spots, the bright clutter of over-furnished rooms, within the painting. In particular he loved Islamic art, and saw a big show of it in Munich on his way back from Moscow in 1911. Islamic pattern offers the illusion of a completely full world, where everything from far to near is pressed with equal urgency against the eye. Matisse admired that, and wanted to transpose it into terms of pure colour. One of the results was The Red Studio, 1911.

On one hand, he wants to bring you into this painting: to make you fall into it, like walking through the looking-glass. Thus the box of crayons is put, like a bait, Just under your hand, as it was under his. But it is not a real space, and because it is all soaked in flat, subtly modulated red, a red beyond ordinary experience, dyeing the whole room, it describes itself aggressively as fiction. It is all inlaid pattern, full of possible "windows," but these openings are more flat surfaces. They are Matisse's own pictures. Everything else is a work of art or craft as well: the furniture, the dresser, the clock and the sculptures, which are also recognizably Matisses. The only hint of nature in all this is the trained houseplant, which obediently emulates the curve of the wicker chair on the right and the nude's body on the left. The Red Studio is a poem about how painting refers to itself: how art nourishes itself from other art and how, with enough conviction, art can form its own republic of pleasure, a parenthesis within the real world - a paradise.

This belief in the utter self-sufficiency of painting is why Matisse could ignore the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. When the war broke out in 1914, he was forty-five - too old to fight, too wise to imagine that his art could interpose itself between history and its victims, and too certain of his alms as an artist to change them. Through the war years, stimulated by a trip to North Africa, his art grew in amplitude and became more abstract, as in The Moroccans, 1916. In 1917 he moved, more or less permanently, to the South of France. "In order to paint my pictures," he remarked, "I need to remain for several days in the same state of mind, and I do not find this in any atmosphere but that of the Côte d'Azur." He found a vast apartment in a white Edwardian wedding cake above Nice, the Hótel Regina. This was the Great Indoors, whose elements appear in painting after painting: the wrought-iron balcony, the strip of blue Mediterranean sky, the palm, the shutters. Matisse once said that he wanted his art to have the effect of a good armchair on a tired businessman. In the 1960s, when we all believed art could still change the world, this seemed a limited aim, but in fact one can only admire Matisse's common sense. He, at least, was under no illusions about his audience. He knew that an educated bourgeoisie was the only audience advanced art could claim, and history has shown him right.











This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008