Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse was a French painter, draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor, prominent representative of Fauvism.

Early years

Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse was born on December 31, 1869 in Le Cateau-Cambrésis in Northern France, in the family of Emile Matisse and Anna Heloise Gerard. He spent his childhood in Bohain-en-Vermandois, where his father, grain merchant, had a shop. The boy’s mother was fond of painting ceramics.

In 1882 – 1887 Henri attended Lycée Henry Martin in the small town of Saint-Quentin and later studied law in Paris. In August 1888 he gained qualification.

Matisse returned to Saint-Quentin, where worked as a clerk in a law office. In parallel, he attended drawing lessons in his leisure time. Henri was trying his hand in painting for the first time, copying colored postcards while staying in a hospital.

Artistic education

In 1891, despite opposition of his father, the young man gave up law, moved to Paris and enrolled The Académie Julian. There in 1892 he trained under guidance of William-Adolphe Bouguereau – master of salon art. In 1893 – 1895 Henri was an apprentice in the workshop of Gustave Moreau in École des Beaux-Arts. Moreau predicted the beginner artist would be have a brilliant future and especially praised his innovations in combining various colors. Matisse copied pieces of Chardin, de Hem, Poussin, Ruisdael, admired legacy of Goya, Delacroix, Ingres, Corot and Daumier.
In 1896 Matisse exhibited several paintings in the salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and was soon elected its corresponding member. One of the paintings (with a reading girl) was bought by the state for the Château de Rambouillet.

Camille Pissarro advised Henri to visit London to acquaint with works of William Turner. The artist travelled a lot during those years, spending time in Corsica, Toulouse and Genoa. He was captivated by southern landscape while staying in Corsica.

Early period – 1900s

Along with practicing painting, Henri Matisse studied at evening courses of sculpture. All that required money. Besides, he had a big family – his wife, Amélie Noellie, born him two sons – Jean and Pierre. In 1901 the master left for Switzerland to recover from bronchitis. He kept working hardly there and because of financial difficulties was forced to stay with his family at parent’s home in province.

1901 – 1904 was the period of intensive creative experiments and accent on sculpture. Matisse himself claimed he had originated his new manner in 1898. The clue to the painter’s earliest canvases can be found in “Bois De Boulogne” and “Luxembourg Gardens” (both dated 1902). They still bore evidences of external influences of impressionism (in representation of lighting effect) and post-impressionism (coloring resembled to Gauguin’s palette). Yet, even there unique Henri’s tendency towards transformation of reality became obvious.

Henri Matisse’s first solo exhibition took place in the gallery of Ambroise Vollard in June 1904. In summer of the same year the author had a journey to Southern France, to Saint-Tropez, together with neoimpressionists Paul Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross. They inspired him to start working in pointillistic technique, using separate dotty brushstrokes.

Originating of Fauvism

At the Autumn Salone of 1905 Matisse displayed, among the other paintings, “Woman with a Hat”. They, together with paintings of his friends, caused a real furore and led to establishing a new vanguard movement, called Fauvism.

In 1907 Henri left for Italy, where he visited Venice, Padua, Florence and Siena. The next year he published “The Notes of a Painter”, where declared his artistic principles and necessity of provoking emotions with simple means. In 1908 the master went to Algeria and immersed himself into oriental art, which was important for his oeuvre. It had a great impact on the painter, visible in predominance of color over form, diversity of tints, decorativeness and stylization of objects in his works.

Henri Matisse opened his art school in Paris but soon abandoned it in order to fully dedicated himself to painting.

Russian collector Sergei Shchukin was the first one to discern and appreciate Matisse’s talent. In 1908 he commissioned the artist three panels for his Moscow house. Two of them – “Dance” and “Music” – are now widely known; the third one – “Bathing or Meditation” remained only in sketches. The hues of fire prevailed in them, amplifying the emotional tense of dynamical compositions with young naked men, symbolizing natural elements – fire, earth and air. Shown at the official Salon before being sent to Russia, those canvases of Matisse led to scandal. The public carped at them about shocking nudity of the personages and unusualness of the characters’ interpretation.

Landscape painting

In winter months of 1911 – 1913 the painter visited Tangier in Morocco. Under impressions after those journeys he created Moroccan triptych “Window at Tangier” (1912), “Zorah on the Terrace” (1912) and “Entrance to the Kasbah” (1912). Later, summing up his experience, Matisse said: “ The voyages to Morocco helped me to make contact with nature again better than did the application of a lively but somewhat limiting theory, Fauvism”.

Those changes were essential for Henri, as the master felt the distance between natural perception of object and its analysis on canvas through fauvistic lens. Finding of link between living model and methods of its depiction was important for him. And light became such linking element for Matisse. Light played major role in “View of the Bay of Tangier”. It looks like dazzling sun of Morocco has blurred outlines of all objects, scorched down all bright colors of the artist’s previous works. The lower part of canvases were left partly uncovered with paint, so the drawing, made with oil emulsion was visible. The paints were diluted, so the horizon of the bay seemed to be rendered in watercolors and the whiteness of the canvas appeared through the layers of paint. Those Moroccan landscapes might be considered one of the master’s high points in representing nature.
Henri Matisse was virtuoso in working with colors. Guillaume Apollinaire justly noticed, “If one were to compare Henri Matisse’s work to something, it would have to be an orange. Like the orange, Matisse’s is a fruit bursting with light”.

After 1914 the painter kept occasionally on making landscapes, defined by new for him reserve coloring: “The Road to Clamart” (1917), “Montalban” (1918).


After World War I Matisse lived mainly in Nice, where another shift in his creative activity happened. The master gradually started giving preference to drawing, which allowed him working quickly and easily. Paintings of that time are noticeable for muted colors and softness of the manner. Under Renoir’s influence Henri showed interest in depicting models in light clothing, hence the series of odalisques appeared. In 1920 Matisse executed theatrical decorations and sketches of costumes for opera of Igor Stravinsky “Le chant du Rossignol”.

Henri Matisse’s name became known all over the world. His exhibitions were held in Moscow, New-York, Paris, London, Berlin, Copenhagen and other cities. In July 1923 he was awarded the Legion of Honor. In 1930 he travelled to Tahiti, where painted two decorative panels for the Barnes Foundation.

1930s – 1940s

1930s – 1940s was period of a new creative raise, when the author returned to principles of Fauvism. Matisse tried to complete his innovations, combining decorativeness, colorfulness with accurate drawing (“Dance”, 1932). He transferred some features of graphic art into monumental painting. That allowed him to cast mundanity and softness aside, creating grandiose canvases, like “The Pink Nude” (1935), “The Dream” (1935), “Still Life with a Shell” (1940), “Still Life with Oysters” (1940). Henri applied asymmetry more and more often and refused from oriental exotics. The main subject of those years were female portraits (“Portrait of a Girl in a Yellow Dress”, “Tabac Royal”, “Dancer resting”).

The painter kept working even in his hardest times. He was seriously ill since 1941, and his wife and daughter were arrested for participation in the Résistance, and Matisse didn’t know their destiny for a long time. He was worried about his son Jean, who also supported the Résistance.

Last period

In 1940s Henri paid a lot of attention to portraiture he had always considered to be his calling. He didn’t gave up experimenting as well, and used decoupage technique in creating sketches. It was also the technique of the “Jazz” series (1944 – 18947).

In 1947 Henri Matisse was awarded with the highest degree. In 1950 he received prize of the XXV Venetian Biennal. In 1948-1953 the painter was commissioned design and decoration “The Chapel of the Rosary” in Vence for Dominican sisters . It was his last work he believed to be extremely important as a synthesis of all preceding searches.

Illness didn’t affected his last pieces, which were light, optimistic and joyful. As Matisse’s assistant remembered, in the nights of insomnia the artist continued drawing to dispel. Even after the heart attack, the day before his death, he asked to give him a pencil and made three sketch portraits.
Henri Matisse died on November 3, 1954 in Nice and was interred there. An artist of a great heart, he expressed his living motto in the following quote: “Derive happiness in oneself from a good day’s work, from illuminating the fog that surrounds us”.