How Henri Matisse Worked

Visitors look at Matisse's "Dance" at a Museum of Modern Art exhibit in Berlin.
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Henri Matisse was the key artist in the Fauvist movement of the early 20th century, one of the first avant-garde movements in European art. Matisse came from humble beginnings and rose to the top of the international art world. His long and prolific career started before the turn of the century and spanned two world wars, several painting styles and art media from painting to sculpture to paper cutouts. Matisse made color a key element in his paintings. He felt that the colors could strongly affect people's feelings, independent of form, and that "the chief function of color should be to serve expression as well as possible" [source: Matisse].

Matisse's artwork earned him great acclaim, but critics also ridiculed him and even accused him of hedonism. Many people poked fun at Fauvism for its "childish" qualities, and the public debated whether it was true art or merely decoration [source: Harrison]. One emotion Matisse's work never inspired was boredom; people around the world had (and still have) very strong reactions to Matisse's work. After all, how many artists have been burned in effigy at an international art exposition, as Matisse was at Chicago's Armory Show in 1913 [source: PBS]?


While some people disliked Matisse's work, others heaped him with honors and praise. France honored Matisse in 1925 by making him a chevalier, the lowest ranking member of the Legion of Honor. Matisse received first prize at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh in 1927, and Pablo Picasso arranged for Matisse's work to be exhibited at the Salon d'Automne in 1944 to celebrate France's liberation from Nazi rule [source: Encyclopedia of World Biography].

Beneath all the hoopla, Henri Matisse was a quiet, serious man of simple habits. He grew from a dreamy boy who found beauty in the outskirts of his town -- where he watched the birds, looked for blooming wild violets, and played with his friends among the ruins of a medieval castle -- into a prolific artist with a love of color and a seemingly endless supply of inspiration. Matisse never lost the feel of the Earth and nature that he cultivated in his childhood, and nature was a favorite theme of his art throughout his life [source: Spurling].

What made Matisse tick, and what was it about his work that got such strong reactions from people around the globe? Read on to learn all about Henri Matisse.


Henri Matisse Biography

Matisse in his Paris studio.
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Henri Emile Benoît Matisse was born in a two-room cottage with a dirt floor in the French town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis on Dec. 31, 1869. The family moved to the town of Bohain when Matisse was just 8 days old. His father was a grain merchant who owned a general store, and his mother was an amateur artist who painted on ceramics and made hats [source: Morgan]. Matisse's father was a stern, practical, no-nonsense man who expected his son to go into business, and the town of Bohain was filled with similar-minded, industrious, hard-working people, many of whom manufactured textiles or grew sugar beets. Hardly the scenic village one might imagine nurturing a budding artist, Bohain was filled with smoking chimneys; textile dyes polluted the streams, and the streets often reeked of beet pulp [source: Spurling].

After going to Paris in 1887 to study law, Matisse passed the bar with distinction in 1888. His father got him a clerking position at a law office, but Matisse had little interest in his work, which he found so boring he sometimes entertained himself by pelting passersby with bits of paper from a peashooter.


He continued a lifelong pattern of dutifully doing what others expected of him until he was 20 years old and hospitalized with digestive problems. His mother brought him a box of paints to occupy his time, and Matisse had an epiphany: "From the moment I held the box of colors in my hand, I knew this was my life." Matisse bought a do-it-yourself painting handbook and enrolled in art classes without his father's knowledge [source: Spurling]. He studied art at the Académie Julian in Paris under Adolphe William Bouguereau until 1892, when he left to study under Gustave Moreau at the École des Beaux-Arts until 1897 [source: Encyclopedia of World Biography].

Matisse had a daughter, Marguerite, with his lover Caroline Joblaud in 1894, but he would marry Amélie Noellie Parayre in January 1898. Amélie loyally supported Matisse during more than 40 years of marriage until their separation in 1939. They had two sons together, Jean (born in 1899) and Pierre (born in 1900). Matisse was diagnosed with duodenal cancer in 1941 and was permanently confined to a wheelchair after that. He died of a heart attack on Nov. 3, 1954, at age 84.


Matisse Paintings

Henri Matisse's early paintings included still-lifes in the traditional Flemish style, using a dark palette. His style changed dramatically after he visited Australian painter John Peter Russell on Belle Îsle off the coast of Brittany in 1897 and 1898, where Russell introduced Matisse to the work of then-unknown Vincent Van Gogh.

Other artists influenced Matisse's work, as well. He experimented with Neo-Impressionist Paul Signac's pointillist technique, which used colored dots to form an image; this led to his masterpiece "Luxe, calme et volupté" [sources: Hughes, Dabrowski]. Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin's symbolic use of color also inspired Matisse. However, it was Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne's work that influenced Matisse the most; Matisse was deeply affected by Cézanne's "Three Bathers," and he called Cézanne a "god of painting" [source: Matisse]. Matisse admired Cézanne's use of form and space, and his "merit of wanting the tones to be forces in a painting" [sources: Schmahmann, Matisse].


He painted his first masterpiece, "The Dinner Table," in 1897. Matisse exhibited it in the Salon d'Automne in Paris, but the Salon gave it a poor location because of what it saw as radical Impressionist characteristics.

Matisse traveled extensively during the early 1900s, which helped him to develop his painting further. His paintings in Morocco of the model Zorah show a modest, introspective character that's a contrast to his other more sensual depictions of women. When Matisse visited Saint-Tropez, he discovered southern light, and his palette brightened. Matisse painted "Woman with a Hat," which began the Fauvist movement, during a visit to Collioure.

Matisse painted in several styles throughout his long career. His Fauvist period (1905-1907) produced great works such as "The Green Line," "Bonheur de vivre" and "Marguerite Reading." Matisse focused on art and decoration from 1908-1913, when he painted "Reclining Odalisque" and "Dance and Music." He even experimented with Cubism from 1913-1917, when he painted "The Piano Lesson," "Yellow Curtain" and "View of Notre-Dame." Matisse also focused on female figures during his early Nice period (1917-1930).

The artist wasn't strictly a painter, however. Matisse also experimented with drawing, sculpture and graphic art. He also painted a mural-sized commission in 1933, which he built using cutouts of colored paper. He continued to work with paper cutouts after that, and he made them his primary artistic medium after 1940 [source: Dabrowski].

Next, we'll talk more about Matisse's involvement with Fauvism.


Matisse and Fauvism

Matisse paints a figure on a large canvas in his studio.
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Matisse was the founder of the Fauvism movement, which lasted from 1905 to 1907. The movement got its name when an art critic at the first Fauvist exhibition in 1905 pointed to a Renaissance statue in the midst of the paintings and exclaimed, "Donatello au milieu des fauves!" ("Donatello among the wild beasts!"). Other artists in the Fauvism movement included Gustave Moreau, Albert Marquet, Henri Manguin, Charles Camoin, Andre Derain, Georges Braque, Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees van Dongen and Emile-Othon Friesz [source: Schmahmann].

The Fauvism movement is known for the use of bright, saturated colors and bold brushstrokes. Fauvists left colors unblended, which interfered with the perception of three-dimensional depth in the images. Fauvist painters used contrasting or complementary colors in their paintings, and they typically wanted to use colors that represented the feeling they were looking for -- not necessarily the color the object was in real life [source: National Gallery of Art].


Fauvism was surrounded by controversy. Some critics associated Fauvism with anarchist ideas, which had become popular in the 1890s due to a political scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair, but Vlaminck was the only Fauvist who actively encouraged anarchism.

Critics also accused Matisse and other Fauvists of hedonism. This is partly because Matisse often painted women, many of whom were nude. Some of his paintings also have a mood of lack of inhibition, such as "Bonheur de vivre," which depicts naked men and women embracing, dancing and reclining in nature. "Bonheur de vivre" was also called "Joie de vivre," an expression that referred to hedonism. Matisse himself, however, was a very reserved man with regular habits, and other paintings of his, such as the landscapes he painted in Collioure and his "Classical" pastoral scenes, reflect more conservative, middle-class values.

While critics often tried to tie the Fauves to political or social movements, they were really a loose, informal grouping of artists without ties to any particular belief system. The beliefs the Fauves shared with one another were about color and art, not about politics or social issues [source: Harrison].


Lots More Information

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  • Cowart, Jack. "Matisse in Morocco: The Paintings and Drawings, 1912-1913." National Gallery of Art. 1990.
  • Dabrowski, Magdalena. "Henri Matisse (1869-1954)." The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (April 4, 2010)
  • Encyclopedia of World Biography. "Henri Matisse." 2010. (April 5, 2010)
  • Harrison, Charles, Francis Frascina and Gillian Perry. "Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century." Yale University Press. 1993.
  • Hughes, Robert. "The Shock of the New: The Hundred-Year History of Modern Art: Its Rise, Its Dazzling Achievement, Its Fall." 1991.
  • Matisse, Henri and Jack Flam. "Matisse on Art." University of California Press. 1995.
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