How Henri Matisse Worked

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].

On the next page, we'll talk more about Matisse's involvement with Fauvism.