Regarded by many as the most significant French painter of the twentieth century, Matisse led the Fauvist group that arose just after 1900. This important but short-lived avant-garde movement used bold colour as a means of expression.
Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse was born at Le Cateau in the north of France on 31 December 1869, the son of a grain merchant and an amateur painter. In 1887, he went to Paris to study law, returning to his local area to work as a court official once he qualified. Meanwhile he started to sketch and sit in on a drawing class at the École Quentin-Latour, and in 1890, during a period of convalescence following appendicitis, he began to paint.
The following year, Matisse returned to Paris to train as an artist, frequenting the Louvre to paint copies of Old Masters and enrolling at the Académie Julian, under William-Adolphe Bouguereau, to prepare for the entrance examination to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. In 1892, without sitting the exam, he transferred to Gustave Moreau’s studio at the École des Beaux-Arts, also taking evening classes at the École des Arts Décoratifs.
In 1896 Matisse made a successful début at the conservative Salon, and his Woman Reading (1894) was bought by the state. During the following two years he met Camille Pissarro and acquainted himself with a large collection of Impressionist works that had just been given to the nation. Flirting briefly with elements of their style, he created a stir at the Salon in 1897 when he exhibited The Dining Table, an ambitious still-life.
The next year he married Amélie Parayre and went travelling. Pissarro had recommended that Matisse study the works of J. M. W. Turner in London, which he did, but he was more influenced by the Japanese prints of James Whistler, and on his return to Paris he began to investigate Eastern art seriously. A stay in Corsica followed.
In 1899 Matisse enrolled in an evening class in sculpture, a medium in which he would produce some 60 works. It was during this period that he began to research the painting techniques of Post-Impressionists Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh, purchasing works by them to study their use of colour as a means of organising space on the canvas. Breaking from his association with the official Salon, he allied himself with the avant-garde in Paris, exhibiting at the Salon des Indépendants and Salon d’Automne. However, poverty and illness dogged the early years of the century for him.
The beginning of Matisse’s artistic success emerged in 1905. He had been experimenting with Pointillism, with its tiny dots of juxtaposed pure pigment, placing complementary colours to create intense visual vibration. In his hands the minute dabs of paint became strokes and then swirls of colour in a brilliant and expressive new way. In the autumn, Matisse exhibited Open Window and Woman with the Hat at the Salon d’Automne alongside similarly experimental works by Kees van Dongen, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. Indignant at the savage use of colour, the vehemence of emotion and the distortion of shapes in the paintings, Paris art critic Louis Vauxcelles referred to the artists as fauves (wild beasts) – a word that has turned from an insult into the name of an artistic movement.
Matisse was seen as the leader of the group and, although radical, he began to attract support among both critics and collectors. The latter included American writer Gertrude Stein and Russian cloth merchant Sergei Shchukin, who commissioned two large murals representing dance and music for the staircase of his grand residence in Moscow. Portraying dancers, in particular, allowed Matisse to focus on expressive form, with anatomical detail secondary. In his mature style, forms are simplified, with heavy, flowing outlines. Perspective is shallow or non-existent, the flatness of the picture surface relieved by decorative patterns, many of Eastern origin. Vivid colour is applied thinly, in large patches. ‘Colours have a beauty of their own which must be preserved, as one strives to preserve tonal quality in music’, he wrote. ‘It is a question of organisation and construction which is sensitive to maintaining this beautiful freshness of colour ... colour is never a question of quantity, but of choice.’
The decade following the first Fauve exhibition was a productive one, bringing forth such works as Joy of Life (1906), Blue Nude (1907), Harmony in Red (1908), The Red Studio (1911), Basket of Oranges (1912), Goldfish (1912), Nasturtiums and ‘The Dance’ (1912), Seated Riffian (1912–1913) and Calla Lilies, Irises and Mimosas (1913). Matisse had exhibitions in New York, Moscow and Berlin in 1908; in 1912 his paintings were on display in Cologne and London, his sculpture in New York; the following year 13 of his works appeared in the New York Armory Show. Now financially secure and well established as an artist, he interspersed work with travel to Morocco, Spain, Germany and Russia.
In 1916 Matisse began to spend time in Nice on the Riviera, where he revelled in the sunlight and colours of the Mediterranean; he would live in this area for the remainder of his life. A collaboration with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes in 1919–1920 saw Matisse designing stage sets and costumes for Le Chant du rossignol (The Nightingale’s Song), a ballet with music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Léonide Massine. During the next five years he produced a series of odalisques that reveal his love of decorative patterning as well as mastery of the expressive human form. He was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1925, and in 1927 he gained first prize at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Matisse had always been interested in printmaking and he produced over 800 prints between 1900 and his death in 1954, including more than 100 etchings and drypoints in 1929 alone. In 1932 his 29 etchings for Stéphane Mallarmé’s Poésies were published, and further etchings were made in 1935 for a limited edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In 1941 he underwent an operation for abdominal cancer and thereafter could no longer stand to paint at an easel. Confined to a wheelchair and long since separated from his wife, he turned his attention to the graphic arts. He illustrated various works of contemporary literature in the 1940s and then in 1947 published his own book, Jazz, containing his reflections on art and existence. Its illustrations are abstract cut-outs: with the help of assistants he hand painted sheets of paper with gouache to achieve exactly the colours he wanted, cut out shapes and then pasted them together – a technique he called ‘drawing with scissors’.
After the end of the Second World War, Matisse turned anew to monumental compositions. He drew sketches for the stained-glass panel representing Sainte Dominique in the church at Assy (1948) and agreed to design stained-glass windows for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence. Indebted as he was to a nurse in the Dominican order there for caring for him during his health crisis in the early 1940s, he went on to paint murals, create black-and-white tile pictures and design the altar crucifix and vestments. Far from flagging in his energies at this stage in life, he worked on the project from 1948 until 1951, commenting, ‘For me this chapel is the culmination of an entire working life and the flowering of a huge effort that has been heartfelt and arduous’. As it reached completion, he launched himself into vast paper cut-outs such as Sorrows of the King (1952), almost 4 metres wide. This huge work refers to a Rembrandt van Rijn canvas depicting David playing the harp to ease the sadness of King Saul; Matisse’s themes are old age, looking back into the past and music as solace.
Still a radical originator, Matisse died on 3 November 1954 in Cimiez, near Nice.