Henri Matisse is regarded as the greatest colorist of the 20th century and 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. He rejected Cubism and instead sought to use color as the foundation for expressive, decorative, and often monumental paintings.
Matisse 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. Towards the end of his life, Matisse 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.
Henri Matisse: Biography
Henri-Emile-Benoit Matisse was born to middle-class parents Emile-Hippolyte-Henri Matisse, a grain and hardware merchant, and Anna Heloise Gerard. He grew up in Bohain-en-Vermandois and went to school at the College de Saint Quentin before moving to Paris to study law. In 1889, he returned to Saint-Quentin as a law clerk, though he found the job tedious and complained of anxiety. Later that year, he contracted appendicitis and spent several months at home recovering. At age 20, he discovered the welcome isolation and freedom of painting.
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Struck by his new passion, Matisse left for Paris again in 1891 to study art. He failed the entrance exams for the École des Beaux-Arts but unofficially joined the studio of French symbolist painter Gustave Moreau in 1892. Moreau told his students, "Colors must be thought, dreamed, imagined." This Symbolist attitude toward painting contributed to Matisse's expressive use of color. After being accepted to the École des Beaux-Arts in 1895, he continued studying with Moreau until 1898. Many styles influenced the painter during these years, from the academic still lifes of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin to the loose brushwork of the Impressionists.
In 1898, Matisse married Amelie Parayre. Moreau died while the couple was abroad for their honeymoon, and Matisse struggled to find another teacher. He was also faced with raising three children - he and his wife had two sons, Jean in 1899 and Pierre in 1900. Despite their financial struggles, Matisse began his lifelong collection of avant-garde art, purchasing Three Bathers (1879-82) by Paul Cézanne from the gallery of Ambroise Vollard. Matisse moved past his Impressionist exploration, influenced by the Post-Impressionists' use of color and the writing of art critic Paul Signac.
Matisse spent the summer of 1905 in Collioure, working with André Derain to create a new style of pure colors and bright light. The new style became known as Fauvism after critic Louis Vauxcelles described the arrangement of works at the Salon d'Automne in 1905 - an important showcase for the new movement - as "Donatello among the wild beasts [fauves]." Matisse was soon known as the Fauvists' leader in the press, called "chief Fauve" by Louis Vauxcelles and other critics.
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The Fauvist movement, though short-lived, forged one of modern art's two directions. In 1905, Matisse met Pablo Picasso at the studio of Gertrude Stein. The two artists began a lifelong friendship and rivalry, each artist representing a possible direction modern art could take after the death of Paul Cézanne. While Picasso deconstructed objects into Cubist planes, Matisse sought to construct an object's form through color.
By 1907, painters were no longer working in the Fauve style, not even Matisse. He moved on to create simplified forms against flat planes of color. His interest in sculpture also intensified, especially in North African work, probably due to his experiences on a 1906 trip to Algeria. He used sculpture to resolve pictorial problems, especially those relating to the figure. He also acquired the support to open an art school in 1908, teaching approximately eighty students over three years. And he gained patronage from collectors of avant-garde art.
From 1911 to 1916, Matisse focused on depicting the human figure in interior spaces decorated with Eastern rugs and souvenirs. While he was not drafted during World War I, the seriousness of world events affected his painting, muting his palette. Towards the end of the war, however, he returned to his bright colors, leading to his "Nice period" from 1917 to 1930. Many of these paintings use the white of the exposed canvas to suggest the bright light of southern France.
In 1930, Matisse went through a time of artistic crisis and transition. Dissatisfied with the conservative direction of his work, he traveled first to Tahiti, then to America three times in three years. He spent much less energy on easel painting, experimenting with book illustration, tapestry design, and glass engraving. In 1931, he was commissioned to create a mural for the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, which he completed in 1933.
Late Years and Death
Matisse's separation from his wife in 1939, the arrival of World War II, and ill health all added to Matisse's anxiety over the direction of his work. After major surgery in 1941, he was confined to a wheelchair. He turned to drawings and paper cut-outs, physically more manageable media, and offered the new potential for expression. Paper cut-outs symbolized for Matisse the synthesis of drawing and painting.
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The paper cut-outs encouraged Matisse to simplify forms even further, distilling the object's "essential character" until it became a symbol of itself. He used the paper cut-out technique to design stained glass windows for the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, France, and as a medium in its own right in large-scale works. With assistance, Matisse could continue working through his illness. On November 3, 1954, Matisse died of a heart attack.
Henri Matisse Art
Listed below are some of Matisse's greatest and most important works of art.
Luxe, Calme, et Volupte (1904)
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. 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.
The Woman with a Hat (1905)
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.
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Joy of Life (Le Bonheur de Vivre) (1905-06)
During his Fauve years, Matisse often painted landscapes in the south of France during the summer and worked up ideas developed into larger compositions upon his return to Paris. The Joy of Live, the second of his important imaginary compositions, is typical of these.
Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra) (1907)
Matisse was working on a sculpture, Reclining Nude I, when he accidentally damaged the piece. Before repairing it, he painted it 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.
The Back I (1908-09)
Although Matisse is known above all as a painter, sculpture was also important to him. He was particularly inspired by Auguste Rodin, whom he visited in his studio in 1900. The Back I is the first of a series of four large relief sculptures that Matisse worked on between 1909 and 1931, which are significantly innovative.
The Moroccans (1915-16)
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 to simplify the composition, though it undoubtedly also recalls the stark shadows produced by the strong sunshine in the region.
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Bathers by a River (1917)
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 various 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, which is why the picture has been the subject of intense scrutiny.
The Dance II (1932)
Albert Barnes, a doctor and art lover, commissioned Matisse in 1931 to paint a mural for the main hall of his gallery, housing works by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, and others. Matisse created a maquette for the mural out of cut paper, which he could rearrange as he determined the composition. However, the finished work was too small for the space due to incorrect measurements. Rather than add a decorative border, Matisse decided to recompose the entire piece, resulting in a dynamic composition in which bodies seem to leap across abstracted space of pink and blue fields.
Blue Nude II (1952)
Matisse completed a series of four blue nudes in 1952, each in his favorite pose of entwined legs and raised arms. Matisse had been making cut-outs for eleven years but had not yet seriously attempted to portray the human figure. In preparation for these works, Matisse filled a notebook with studies. He then created a figure that is abstracted and simplified, a symbol for the nude, before incorporating the nude into his large-scale murals.
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The Legacy of Henri Matisse
Scholars in the 1950s described Matisse and Fauvism as a precursor of Abstract Expressionism and much of modern art. Several Abstract Expressionists trace their lineage to Matisse, though for different reasons. Some, like Lee Krasner, are influenced by his various media; Matisse's paper cut-outs inspired her to cut up her own paintings and reassemble them. Color field painters, such as Mark Rothko and Kenneth Noland, were taken with his broad fields of bright color, as in the Red Studio (1911). On the other hand, Richard Diebenkorn was more interested in how Matisse created the illusion of space and the spatial tension between his subject matter and the flat canvas. Others, like Robert Motherwell, did not show Matisse's influence directly in their artwork but were influenced by his view of painting color and form. Matisse's art continues to beguile not only artists but also collectors, who have bought his paintings for as much as $17 million. As several recent and upcoming blockbuster exhibitions suggest, Henri Matisse continues to be a favorite of the public worldwide.
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