Henri Matisse was born in Le Cateau-Cambresis, Nord France on December 31, 1869. He was the first son of a middle-class family and grew up in Bohain-en-Vermandois, Picardy where his family’s flower business was. He studied at the College de Saint Quentin before taking up Law in Paris in 1887. After acquiring his qualifications in 1889, he returned to Le Cateau-Cambresis and worked there as a court administrator. He complained of anxiety and found the work tedious. Having contracted appendicitis later in the year, Matisse spent months resting at home. It was during this time that his mother brought him paints and other art supplies and Matisse began painting. Matisse would later describe this period as “a kind of paradise”. Matisse then decided his path was that of an artist, which disappointed his merchant father.
Having chosen to be an artist, Matisse set off for Paris once more in 1891. He studied under Gustave Moreau and William-Adolphe Bouguereau at the Académie Julian in 1892 after having failed the entrance exam for Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Matisse’s use of expressive colour was highly influenced by symbolist attitudes. Matisse continued to study under Moreau in 1895 even after being finally accepted at Ecole. The Impressionists’ brushwork, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin’s academic still life paintings, and Japanese art were among the many styles that influenced Matisse. Matisse admired Chardin so much that when he was still a student, he made copies of four of Chardin’s paintings in Louvre.
In 1894, his daughter Marguerite was born to his lover, the model Caroline Joblaud. He broke off his relationship with Joblaud and married Amelie Noellie Parayre. Henri and Amelie raised Marguerite together with their two sons Jean and Pierre. He often had his wife and daughter serve as models in his work. Aside from looking for a new teacher, Moreau having died during Matisse’s honeymoon, Henri had to deal with the raising of three children. Despite being in debt, Matisse began collecting avant-garde art by artists he admired. Among his collection was a drawing by Van Gogh, The Three Bathers by Paul Cezanne, and a painting by Gaugin.
He went to London in 1898 to study the works of J.M.W. Turner. After London, Matisse went to Corsica and, upon returning to Paris in 1899, met Andre Derain, Jean Puy, Jules Flandrin, and Albert Marquet, even working with Marquet. Immersing himself in the works of artists he admired was what prompted his collecting of their art. Matisse found inspiration in Cezanne’s works, with their sense of colour and pictorial style.
Matisse used a Divisionist technique on his work from 1898 to 1901. He adopted this technique after having read Paul Signac’s essay on Neo-impressionism. From 1902 to 1903, Matisse experienced financial difficulties, and it showed in the more sombre pieces that showed a preoccupation with form. Copying after Antoine-Louis Barye, he made his first attempt at sculpture in 1899. The Slave was not completed until 1903.
Matisse and the Fauves
In 1904, he had his first solo exhibition at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery, but it was met with very little success. In spending the summer of the same year at St. Tropez together with Signac and Henry Edmond Cross, both Neo-impressionists, Matisse’s fondness for bright, expressive colours became more pronounced. It was during this time that Luxe, Calme et Volupte, his most important Neo-impressionist work, was created. He worked once more with Andre Derain at Collioure in 1905.
In that same year, Matisse had an exhibit together with a group of artists known as the Fauves at the Salon d’Automne. The paintings disregarded the subject’s natural colours while expressing emotion with wild, dissonant colours. The Salon showed Matisse’s Open Window and Woman with a Hat. The exhibition received harsh criticism, with critic Louis Vauxcelles describing it with the phrase “Donatello au milieu des fauves!” or “Donatello among the beasts”. But the purchase of Woman with a Hat by Gertrude and Leo Stein helped improve Henri’s morale.
Matisse, together with Derain were considered leaders of the Fauvist movement. Matisse’s work continued to garner harsh criticism and made it difficult for him to support his family. Though the Fauvist movement was short-lived, it shaped one of the directions of modern art.
Matisse and Picasso: Friends and Rivals
Matisse met Pablo Picasso in 1905 at Gertrude Stein’s studio. Picasso was 12 years younger than Matisse. Their meeting turned into a lifelong friendship and rivalry. The two painters were often compared despite their difference in style. Picasso drew from the imagination, deconstructing them into Cubist planes while Matisse painted subjects from nature and would construct their forms through colour. While both usually painted women and still life subjects, Matisse’s subjects were often placed in fully realised interiors. Both artists were also supported by the same collectors: the sisters Clarabel and Etta Cone; and Leo, Gertrude, and Sarah Stein. Leo and Gertrude’s collection included works by Monet and Cezanne, as well as Picasso’s and Matisse’s. But Sarah Stein’s collection was dominated by works of Matisse.
With these friends and patrons, Matisse started the Académie Matisse, a non-commercial, private school in Paris where Matisse instructed young artists. Among his students were his friend and patron Sarah Stein and Hans Purrmann.
Matisse focused on painting human figures in interiors featuring Eastern rugs and similar souvenirs from 1911 to 1916. Matisse was never drafted for World War I, yet the war’s atmosphere and the direness of the situation affected his work. Henri’s paintings featured more muted colours, a reflection of the dreariness of the time. He returned to his vibrant colours towards the end of the war, the time leading to his “Nice Period”, which was from 1917 to 1930. Suggesting southern France’s bright lights, many of these paintings used the exposed parts of the white canvas.
Matisse went through an artistic crisis and transition period in 1930. The dissatisfaction with the direction of his work led him to travel to Tahiti and then to America. He focused his attention on experimenting with tapestry design, book illustrations, even glass engraving. In 1931, the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania commissioned him to create a mural for them which he completed two years later.
Matisse: Late Years and Legacy
Matisse’s anxiety over the direction of his work was aggravated by his ill health, separation from his wife, and the start of the Second World War. He used a wheelchair in 1941 following an operation. With his condition, he turned to a more manageable media that offered the potential for expression: paper cut-outs. Matisse had to simplify his subjects’ forms even further with the paper cut-outs. By doing so, their “essential character” was distilled and they became a symbol of themselves. In designing the stained-glass windows of the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, France, Matisse applied his paper cut-out technique. Matisse was able to continue working despite his illness through the help of several assistants. Cancer took his life on November 3, 1954.
Matisse and Fauvism were considered by 1950s scholars as precursors of Abstract Expressionism as well as of modern art. Many Abstract Expressionists have been influenced by him. His paper cut-outs inspired Lee Krasner to cut her paintings into pieces and put them back together. Kenneth Noland and Mark Rothko were charmed by his bright colours. They are but a few of the artists that have been inspired and influenced by Matisse and his works. To this day, Henri Matisse’s artworks continue to charm not only artists but collectors as well.