Matisse had a name fairly meant for the Parisian art scene, if only because it is a near homophone of the French word ‘artiste’.

He stumbled upon painting through an unusual set of circumstances but once he declared himself a creator of art, there was no turning back.

Rather little is known of his early life other than he was first-born into a wealthy family. His father was a grain merchant and his mother enjoyed dabbling in painting.

Young Henri showed little inclination for art; he studied law in Paris before returning to his hometown in northern France to work as a court clerk and administrator.

When he was 20 years old he was stricken with appendicitis that led to a prolonged episode of recovery during which he could not work. To help him pass the time, his mother gifted him a trove of art supplies. She had no idea that simple act would completely change her son’s life, deeply disappointing her husband in the process.

The art world, on the other hand, delighting in having Henri Matisse break new ground in artistic expression and direction.

Superprof now looks at the 60-year art career that Henri Matisse enjoyed and how he continuously reinvented himself to remain relevant.

Early Years and Tentative Explorations

Matisse's work was initially pretty dark
As he learned more about colour theory, Matisse soon abandoned his dark portrayals Source: Wikipedia

“In painting, I have discovered a kind of paradise” Henri Matisse

Once he was fully recovered from his attack of appendicitis, Matisse returned to Paris for a second round of studies – not of the musty subject of Law but of art.

He enrolled at Académie Julian, a private art school, where he learned intricate brushwork through landscape painting and still lifes.

At the outset, his painting technique was quite traditional but his eyes kept straying to the works of other French artists like Manet and Chardin; in fact, he often spent his free time at the Louvre copying works by other famous artists.

Matisse approached his art education intellectually rather than by any drive to create. He sought out the best teachers, even travelling to meet them and learn from them.

Such was the case when he set out to meet Australian painter John Russell, who was staying on the island of Belle Isle. There, he was introduced the brightness of van Gogh paintings; an experience that completely changed his palette.

Mimicking the Dutch impressionist artist, he abandoned dark colours in favour of more realistically-hued works, such as Blue Pot and Lemon, displayed at the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg.

In a further tribute to Vincent van Gogh, Matisse painted a Vase of Sunflowers; he also executed Study of a Nude, employing elements of pointillism.

Matisse, fully realising he was a novice among great painters, always followed advice from those he saw as his betters. So it came to be that, when Camille Pissarro suggested he travel to London to study the works of British painter William Turner, he readily complied.

Fully enthused by life in the art world, upon returning to Paris, he nearly bankrupted himself buying up fellow artists’ works: Rodin, Gauguin and Paul Cezanne. The van Gogh that he had been given at Belle Isle also adorned his walls.

In spite of showing well at Salon – the French government bought two of his oil on canvas paintings, Matisse needed something to advance his carefully-studied career.

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Hello, Fauvism!

“Impressionism is the newspaper of the soul.” Henri Matisse

Up to the turn of the century – for the first few years of Matisse’s career, he was considered an impressionist painter; whether he disdained that designation or not is in question still today. However, the above quote gives an indication of his feelings about impressionistic art in general.

He felt that impressionist paintings are themselves a blank canvas upon which the viewer projects his own emotions and ideas or, conversely, find their ideas and feelings reflected in them, validating them in some way.

As the movement's creator, Claude Monet would tell you, impressionism was, in effect, representational. Fauvism, by contrast, called for strong colours and more than a touch of abstraction.

The Fauves – wild beasts in French, were young painters, themselves seen as unrestrained in their creation of art, as though they were the beasts in question.

Henri Matisse was a leader of the Fauvist art movement, along with André Derain. He had sojourned in Tahiti, where he had picked up a predilection for bright colours; a bias that served him well as a Fauve.

This style of painting advocated for the use of bold colours whether they were representative of the subject matter or not, meaning that artworks of this period, while audacious, did not reflect mainstream sensibilities.

In other words, Fauvism was condemned virtually from the start.

Naturally, this did not do a good turn for any Fauvist. Each of the three exhibitions of Fauvist works garnered nothing but criticism, with Matisse’s work singled out for special wrath.

By this time Henri Matisse was married and had children to feed. His work being consistently panned made it very difficult for him to support his family so, when Gertrude Stein bought his most reviled painting, it not only lightened his mood but floated his family along until that most ill-received of art movements came to an end.

Yes, that is the same Gertrude Stein who was Spanish painter Pablo Picasso’s patron. And there is another Picasso link: Georges Braque, the co-father of Cubism, was initially a Fauvist.

Henri Matisse and that Spanish artist met at the height of the Fauvist period, in 1906. In spite of their age difference, they would become lifelong friends and gentle rivals.

Matisse's stab at pointillism
Henri Matisse was always looking for greater technical challenges; here he tries his hand at pointillism Source: Wikipedia

Matisse: Life Beyond the Canvas

“There are always flowers for those who want to see them” Henri Matisse

In 1889, as a man of only 20 years, when Matisse turned away from pragmatic work concerns to embrace art, he did not limit himself to one discipline.

Thanks to the Stein’s patronage, Henri was often invited to social events where he met other artists, including a poet named Apollinaire, who would later fall under suspicion of having stolen the Mona Lisa from the Louvre.

Contrarily, once his name was established in painting circles, Matisse decamped from Paris to establish himself in Nice. It might have been because he could not see himself painting as a cubist – the next big art movement, or it could have been because his family needed to break away from the big city.

The more likely reason was to distance himself from the atrocities of the First World War.

He quite enjoyed painting in Nice, where the light and climate were more favourable, even though he never again found the height of fame that he enjoyed in Paris once the Fauvist movement ended.

He also travelled abroad quite a bit, even spending a hefty chunk of time in the United States, courting wealthy patrons there.

Americans had been fans of Matisse’s art for just about as long as he had been an artist: Gertrude and Leo Stein were among his first patrons, but so were the wealthy Cone socialites and a Dr Albert Barnes, who commissioned him to paint a large mural in his mansion.

With all of these demands on his talent, Matisse sometimes stepped away from brushwork altogether to focus on other forms of art such as sculpture, drawing and collage.

He also compiled an impressive 12 volumes of what he called ‘artist books’; essentially a series of limited-edition etching art books for collectors.

All of this inventiveness – finding new ways of expressing his artistic vision served him well, especially toward the end of his life.

Sunset: Matisse’s Final Years

“It has bothered me all of my life that I do not paint like everyone else.” Matisse

Contrary to the frenzied brushstrokes an expressionist painter in full passion for his work, Matisse had always been methodical – in learning how to paint and in depicting his subject matter.

His diligence, fastidious manner and regimented work schedule earned him equal parts of scorn and admiration in the Paris art community; even as he lingered at the Galette, he wished he could fit in better with the famous painters idling there.

Matisse what diagnosed with abdominal cancer in 1941. France was already occupied by that time but, fortunately, the Germans found Matisse’s work pleasant so they helped him secure an operation to remove the cancer.

Unfortunately, he suffered serious post-operative complications that left him bedridden for the next few months but, undeterred, he set about creating art differently: decoupage became his new medium.

Matisse had cut painted paper into abstract shapes before; first as the stage designer for Igor Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and again for the Paris-based Russian Ballet.

He had always seen paper-cutting as separate from his work as a painter but now, seriously incapacitated and unable to paint or sculpt, he relented in his assessment, ultimately increasing the size and his output of cut-outs.

Matisse continued to work in whatever capacity he could until the 3rd of November, 1954, when he succumbed to a heart attack.

Van Gogh influenced Matisse
We can see van Gogh's influence in Matisse's early work By Henri Matisse via Wikipedia


Like Italian Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci, Henri Matisse refused to let illness, injury or old age slow him down.

A French impressionist at the outset, he created the most famous paintings of his career after Fauvism but before he relocated to Nice. Still, he was always ready to experiment with another medium or movement... as long as it did not offend his sensibilities.

One of the blandest compliments ever paid him was: “Matisse’s art is eminently reasonable.” but, as it turns out, it is true - and the artist himself knew it.

Today, Matisse is considered one of the vanguards of modern art; he ranks among the most famous artists of the early 20th Century

Although his are not the most expensive paintings, they can be found in multiple countries, in their museum of art. They are generally appreciated, with little indication of the turmoil or trouble the artist might have endured in painting them... possibly because there was not much trouble.

Now discover other famous works of art and the most famous painters in art history...

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