Carolyn and I have admired the work of French artist Henri Matisse, who helped revolutionize visual art developments during the first decades of the Twentieth Century with his expressively colored paintings and uniquely crafted sculptures of freestanding figures.
Henri Émile Benoît Matisse was born in Northern France in 1869, and he grew up in the Picardy region of France. He was the eldest son of a wealthy grain merchant, who was a strict father. In 1887, Matisse went to Paris to study law. A year later he passed the bar and then worked as a court administrator.
In 1889, Matisse suffered from an attack of appendicitis. While he was recovering in bed, his mother brought him some art supplies. Painting stirred something deep inside Matisse, and he said that he “discovered a kind of paradise” when creating art. “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands,” he said, “I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.”
This experience inspired Matisse to become an artist, which deeply disappointed his father. However, his mother encouraged him and said to not follow the conventional rules of art. She advised him to try out new things and to paint his emotions. Matisse later said, “My mother liked everything I did. It is from my affection for her that I always drew what theory failed to offer me, to finish my paintings.”
In 1891, Matisse began to formally study art at an academy in Paris, where he initially painted still lifes and landscapes in a traditional style. He was influenced by the work of early European masters, as well as contemporary artists and Japanese art. The Eighteenth-Century French painter Jean Simeon Chardin was one of his most important influences.
In 1896, while he was visiting Australian painter John Russell on an island off the coast of Brittany, Matisse was introduced to Impressionism — the Nineteenth Century art movement, emphasized by small, visible brushstrokes that captured the changing qualities of light. Russell was friends with Vincent van Gogh, and he gave Matisse one of van Gogh’s drawings, which made a great impression on him. This experience inspired Matisse to change his painting style, and he started painting with brighter and bolder colors. That year Matisse exhibited five paintings at a salon and two of them were purchased by the state.
In 1897, Matisse painted The Dinner Table, which shows a woman setting a large, elaborate dinner table. Although the painting is now considered to be a masterpiece, it was not well received at the salon where it was first exhibited because people thought that it looked “blurry,” as it is a work done in the style of impressionism, which seeks to capture a feeling more than a realistic depiction. Matisse said, “I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.”
In 1898, Matisse traveled to London for a year, to study the paintings of English romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, and when he returned to London he went into debt from buying the work of painters that he admired. In his home, he displayed the work of Rodin, Gauguin, Cezanne, and van Gogh.
That same year, Matisse married Amélie Noellie Parayre, and in 1902 her parents become involved in a major financial scandal. The family was menaced by angry mobs and fraud victims. Matisse’s father-in-law was arrested, and this meant that Matisse was financially responsible for an extended family of seven. During that year and the following year, Matisse changed his painting style to make his work more saleable and adopted a more somber approach.
Soon after this, Matisse started devoting time to working in sculpture. Although he did his first attempt at sculpture in 1899, he didn’t start investing much energy in this until 1903, when he produced The Serf, which a number of art experts have suggested might have been based upon himself, as he seemed to have “psychologically identified” with the sculpture. Matisse was experiencing poverty at the time, and it was suggested that he “might have felt a kinship with the weight of problems bearing down on the serf’s shoulders.”
In 1904, Matisse had his first solo exhibition at a gallery in Paris, which wasn’t very successful. After this Matisse’s work began showing brighter and more expressive colors, and he joined an art movement known as Fauvism, which depicted simplified or abstract subject matter, and emphasized strident colors and more extravagant brushwork.
In 1905, Matisse exhibited with a group of artists in the Fauvism movement, and the exhibition received both harsh criticism and favorable attention. One critic said of the exhibit that, “a pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public.” Matisse’s painting at the exhibit, Woman with a Hat, was singled out for condemnation by the critics but was then purchased by American novelist and playwright Gertrude Stein.
In 1906, Matisse met Pablo Picasso at Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon, and the two became lifelong friends, as well as rivals. In 1912 Matisse visited Morocco, and while there he made several changes to his work, such as adding the use of black as a color to his paintings and adding “a new boldness.” Although he was receiving greater notoriety for his work, Matisse’s work continued to encounter some serious criticism. In 1913, an effigy of his painting Nu Bleu, which depicted a reclining nude woman, was burned at a show in Chicago.
In 1917, Matisse relocated to the French Riviera, and his work after this move showed a “relaxation and softening in his approach.” In the 1920s, Matisse engaged in active collaboration with other European and American artists, and after 1930 his work changed again, with “a new vigor and bolder simplification.”
Matisse was visiting Paris in 1940 when the Nazis invaded the city. He fled to the south, but stayed in France, and even had an exhibit in Paris whiles the Nazis occupied the city. However, all of Matisse’s work was purged from French museums and galleries, much of it confiscated by the Nazis, and he had to sign an oath assuring his “Aryan” status. During this time Matisse worked as a graphic artist, producing black-and-white book illustrations and lithographs.
In 1941 Matisse underwent surgery for abdominal cancer that left him reliant on a wheelchair and often bed-bound, so painting and sculpture became physically challenging. Matisse turned to a new medium, where he would cut up sheets of paper, pre-painted with gouache, into shapes of varying colors and sizes, and then arrange them to form creative compositions. Some of these pieces became murals and room-sized works. He called the last fourteen years of his “a second life.”
Between 1948 and 1951, Matisse was commissioned to work on the Chapel of Rosary in Venice, for which he created all the wall decorations, Stations of the Cross, furniture, stained-glass windows, vestments, and altar cloths. This is often considered to be the crowning achievement of his career.
In 1952, Matisse established a museum dedicated to his work, the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau, which today holds the third-largest collection of his work in France.
In 1954 Matisse died of a heart attack at the age of 84. He is buried in a cemetery in the Cimiez neighborhood of Nice.
Today Matisse is considered one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. His stylistic innovations fundamentally altered the course of modern art, influenced the art of several generations of younger painters, and his work has been highly valued. In 2002 Matisse’s sculpture Reclining Nude I sold for $9.2 million, and in 2005 his painting The Plum Blossoms was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for $25 million.
Some of the quotes that Henri Matisse is known for include:
Impressionism is the newspaper of the soul.
I would like to recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it.
There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.
I don’t know whether I believe in God or not. I think, really, I’m some sort of Buddhist. But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.
There are always flowers for those who want to see them.
Creativity takes courage.
It is not enough to place colors, however beautiful, one beside the other; colors must also react on one another. Otherwise, you have cacophony.
Work cures everything.
Would not it be best to leave room to mystery?
Why have I never been bored? For more than fifty years I have never ceased to work.