The French painter and sculptor Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was one of the great initiators of the modern art movement and the most outstanding personality of the first revolution in 20th-century art—Fauvism.
About the turn of the 20th century there were several artists who simultaneously and independently of each other developed a taste for strong color. This liking was derived from the work of Vincent Van Gogh, that of the divisionists (or pointillists), and Paul Gauguin's experience of primitivism in Tahiti. The combination of a primary color scheme with the primitive approach to visual experience, in which simplification and distortion enhance expressiveness, resulted in Fauvism, which initiated the modern movement.
The greatest master of modern sophistication, Henri Matisse, learned from the manner in which children draw how to see natural objects in an innocent way, as if perceiving them for the first time. Matisse was the artist who fulfilled the national tradition of French painting in the modern movement. When cubism entered the arena as a new alternative to the art of the past, what entered with it was the analytical, cerebral quality in modern art. Fauvism, on the other hand, represented in its first stage the victory of sensualism, which particularly through color transmitted its message with a strong direct impact. Fauvism developed in the oeuvre of Matisse into a classical art. A balance was achieved between color, expressing light, and form, presenting objects as pure forms in a two-dimensional manner without any illusionism.
Henri Matisse was born on Dec. 31, 1869, at Le Cateau-Cambrésis. After the war of 1870-71 his family returned to Bohain-en-Vermandois. Matisse's father was a corn merchant, his mother an amateur painter. He studied law from 1887 to 1891 and then decided to go to Paris and become a painter. He worked under Adolphe William Bouguereau at the Académie Julian in Paris, but he left in 1892 to enter the studio of Gustave Moreau at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he studied until 1897. Moreau was a liberal teacher who did not interfere with the individuality of his pupils, among whom were Georges Rouault, Albert Marquet, Henri Manguin, Charles Camoin, and Jean Puy. Moreau encouraged his students to look at nature and to paint outdoors, as well as to frequent the museums. Matisse copied pictures by Philippe de Champaigne, Nicolas Poussin, and Jean Baptiste Chardin in the Louvre and painted outdoors in Paris.
About 1898, under the influence of impressionism, Matisse's palette became lighter, as in his seascapes of Belle-Île and landscapes of Corsica and the Côte d'Azur. Although impressionist in character, these early works of Matisse already show a noticeable emphasis on color and simplified forms. Matisse married in 1898 and visited London in the same year to study the works of J. M. W. Turner on Camille Pissarro's advice. On his return to Paris he attended classes at the Académie Carrière, where he met André Derain. Matisse created his first sculptures in 1899.
From 1900 Matisse suffered great material hardship for years. In 1902 the artist, his wife, and their three children were forced to return to Bohain. In 1903 the Salon d'Automne was founded, and Matisse exhibited there. From 1900 to 1903, under the influence of Paul Cézanne, Matisse produced still lifes and nudes which excel in clarity and harmony. In 1904 he had his first one-man show at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard in Paris and spent the summer in Saint-Tropez, where Paul Signac lived. Signac bought Matisse's famous picture Luxe, calme et volupté (1904-1905), which was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. In 1905 Matisse painted with Derain at Collioure; the works Matisse executed there are the very essence of Fauvism in their vivid colors and flat patterning.
Matisse's Fauve period extended from 1905 to 1908, during which time he executed a magnificent series of masterpieces. Three groups of artists made up the Fauvist movement, centered on Matisse. The first group was that of the Atelier Moreau and the Académie Carrière: Marquet, Manguin, Camoin, and Puy. The second group consisted of the two artists who painted at Châtou: Maurice Vlaminck and Derain. The third was the Le Havre group: Othon Friesz, Raoul Dufy, and Georges Braque. The Dutch painter Kees van Dongen also belonged to the Fauves. At the 1905 Salon d'Automne the Fauves made their first public appearance. In 1906 Matisse's Joie de vivre was exhibited at the Indépendants; the painting, which is arranged in a series of unbroken surfaces related by color harmonies and embodies his new ideas, gained him the title of the King of the Fauves. The American collector Leo Stein began to buy his work.
Matisse made his first trip to North Africa in 1906. His Blue Nude, or Souvenir de Biskra (1907), is a memento of the journey. In this painting he experimented with contrapposto (an undulating S-curve pose), and he used the same form in the sculpture Reclining Nude I (1907). He had established a studio in the former Convent des Oiseaux in 1905; this became a meeting place for foreign artists. He developed into the leader of an international art school with mainly German and Scandinavian pupils who spread his ideas. His "Notes of a Painter," published in La Grande revue in 1908, became the artistic credo of a whole generation. Matisse was an amiable man and looked more like a shy government official than an artist. He never accepted any fees for his tuition so that he might remain free to take his leave at any time, should this commitment interfere with his creative activity.
Change in Style
Between 1908 and 1913 Matisse made journeys to Spain, Germany, Russia, and Africa. In Munich he saw the exhibition of Islamic art (1910), and in Moscow he studied Russian icons (1911). Russian collectors began to buy his pictures. He produced five sculptures—heads of Jeannette—during 1910 and 1911, which show affinities with African masks and sculptures. His Moroccan journey of 1911-12 had a decisive influence on his development, exemplified in Dance, Music, the Red Fishes, and the series of interiors recording his studio and its contents. They show a stern and compact style with blacks and grays, mauves, greens, and ochers. Great Matisse exhibitions were held in 1910, 1913, and 1919.
By 1919 Matisse had become an internationally known master. His style at that time was characterized by the use of pure colors and their sophisticated interplay (harmonies and contrasts); the two-dimensionality of the picture surface enriched by decorative patterns taken from wallpapers, Oriental carpets, and fabrics; and the musicality of outlines and arabesques, the human figures being treated in the same manner as the decorative elements. The goal of Matisse's art was the portrayal of the joy of living in contrast to the stresses of our technological age. Between 1920 and 1925 he executed a series of odalisques, such as the Odalisque with Raised Arms; this period has been called an oasis of lightness.
In 1925 Matisse was made chevalier of the Legion of Honor, and in 1927 he received the first prize at the Carnegie International Exhibition at Pittsburgh. After a visit to Tahiti, Matisse was a guest at the Barnes Foundation at Merion, Pa., and accepted Dr. Barnes's commission to paint a mural, The Dance (1932-1933), for the hall of the foundation. A crescendo of work distinguished his life. He produced paintings, drawings, book illustrations (etchings and lithographs), sculptures (he made 54 bronzes altogether), ballet sets, and designs for tapestry and glass. He spent the war years in the south of France. In 1944 Pablo Picasso arranged for him to be represented in the Salon d'Automne to celebrate the Liberation.
Matisse considered the culmination of his lifework to be his design and decoration of the Chapel of the Rosary for the Dominican nuns at Vence (1948-1951). He designed the black-and-white tile pictures, stained glass, altar crucifix, and vestments. At the time of the consecration of the Vence chapel Matisse held a large retrospective exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The ultimate step in the art of Matisse was taken in his papiers découpés, abstract cutouts in colored paper, executed in the mid-1940s, for example, the Negro Boxer, Tristesse du roi, and Jazz. The master died on Nov. 3, 1954, in Cimiez near Nice.
Further Reading on Henri Matisse
The most comprehensive study of Matisse to date is Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Matisse, His Art and His Public (1951), which includes biography, a full bibliography, and documentation. Older studies of interest are Roger Fry, Henri Matisse (1935), and Henry McBride, Matisse (1930). Of the more recent works, University of California at Los Angeles, Art Council, Henri Matisse, with text by Jean Leymarie and others (1966), provides commentary and representative selections from all of Matisse's work. Georges Duthuit, The Fauvist Painters (1950), and Jean Leymarie, Fauvism: Biographical and Critical Study (1959), contain detailed information on Matisse and his work.