19th Century painter, draftsman, sculptor and printmaker, Henri Matisse, revolutionised art history through his use of colour and depiction of 'the essential character of things'.
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Henri Matisse is often described as one of the most influential artists of the early 20th century. The French artist’s unique approach to the depiction of likeness, which saw him produce some of the most iconic images of the modern era, built upon the radical and inventive practices of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, birthing an unmistakable visual style.
Henri Matisse was born in 1869 at Le Cateau-Cambrésis in the French ‘Nord’ department, close to the Belgian border. Growing up in nearby Picardie, Matisse went on to study law in Paris, only turning to painting at the age of 20 following an acute attack of appendicitis. Painting provided Matisse some much-valued solace during his lengthy recovery. Painting was, as the artist said, 'a kind of paradise'.
Matisse later attended both the Académie Julian and École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris, studying under Academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau and renowned Symbolist artist, Gustave Moreau. It was not until his 1896 meeting with Australian artist and friend of Vincent Van Gogh, John Russell, that Matisse had his artistic awakening. The young artist’s style changed overnight, the drab, earthy tones of his figurative paintings replaced by the array of vibrant colours for which he is so well known.
A trip to London in 1898 saw Matisse undertake an extensive study of the works of J. M. W. Turner. Later in the same year, Matisse married Amélie Noellie Parayre, who often served as a life model for the artist. The pair’s honeymoon in Corsica would prove to be a decisive turning-point in Matisse’s career.
Staying in the island’s capital, Ajaccio, in a south-facing apartment located just 100 metres from the sea’s edge, Matisse discovered the artistic potential of light for the first time. The works Matisse produced in this period, such as My Room In Ajaccio (1898), are wildly expressive and convey the state of ecstasy the artist experienced during his honeymoon.
When Matisse and his young family returned to northern France, living in a flat rented from the artist’s father, the Fauvist movement began to achieve widespread acclaim.
Taking its name from the word ‘fauve’, or ‘wild beast’, the movement was characterised by expressive, colourful, and painterly representations of various subject matter. Its members exhibited for the first time in 1905 at Paris’s renowned Salon d’Automne exhibition, where two of Matisse’s works - Open Window (1905) and Woman With A Hat (1905) - were met with a combination of praise and ridicule. Despite facing criticism, influential art world figures Gertrude and Leo Stein rushed to support Matisse, buying up his Woman With A Hat.
In 1906, the Stein siblings introduced Matisse to the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, and the pair exhibited together at their Paris salon in the same year.
Amongst Matisse’s most famous works is the 1953 maquette La Gerbe (The Sheaf), a key example of the artist’s ‘cut-outs’. La Raie Verte (1905), a portrait in oils of Matisse’s wife Amélie, and La Danse (1910), a large-scale work produced for Russian businessman Sergei Shchukin, have also achieved a certain cult status.
Matisse’s Blue Nudes (1952), a series of lithograph prints depicting the female form, fuse Matisse’s unique approach to image-making with the influence of African and Polynesian art. Prints from this series are a recurring feature of domestic settings throughout the world.
Impressionism is perhaps Matisse’s most significant source of artistic influence. The movement originated in April of 1874, when a group of artists defied the traditional approaches of the Paris Salon – an annual art event organised by the city’s Académie des Beaux-Arts – by setting up their own independent exhibition. Utilising a variety of intense colours and gestural, rapidly applied brush strokes, the Impressionists abandoned artistic norms, such as linear perspective, capturing impressions of their surroundings. The work of Vincent Van Gogh, which was influenced considerably by the Impressionist movement, also helped institute a profound change in Matisse’s visual style during the late 19th century.
Matisse was famously critical of Cubism, an artistic movement of which Spanish contemporary Pablo Picasso is one of the most well-known proponents.
An artist whose work constantly shifted throughout his lengthy career, Matisse’s artistic style is difficult to pin down. From the more conventionally representational works, such as Le Renard Blanc (1929), through to the ‘cut-out’ pieces of the 1940s and ‘50s, such as L’Avaleur De Sabres (1947), one feature of the artist’s work is strikingly consistent: a unique and deconstructive approach to looking and seeing the world.
During the early part of the 1900s, Matisse rejected the dull palette of the academy, producing dynamic and often garish works. This was a product of the rich light conditions of southern France.
Matisse’s ill-health also saw him leapfrog between lifelike, detail-rich pieces and simple, economical depictions of form. This simplification led eventually to a significant body of collage works, produced using brightly coloured paper during the 1940s and 50s. This later portion of Matisse’s œuvre made him a prominent figure of Colourism.
Matisse is widely credited with introducing his contemporary, Pablo Picasso, to African art. During a meeting at one of American art collector Gertrude Stein’s salons in her adoptive home of Paris, Matisse is alleged to have shown Picasso a small African statue. The sculpture was actually a ‘Vili’ figure from the Democratic Republic of Congo that Matisse had found in one of Paris’s many bric-a-brac shops.
Matisse himself was hugely inspired by his trips to North Africa; in 1906, the artist spent two weeks in Algeria – then a French colony – and visited the Biskra oasis, a site popular with avant-garde writers and painters. Traces of his trip would appear in his odalisque paintings of the 1920s, which combined a depiction of the artist’s apartment in Nice, southern France, with Orientalist motifs.
After his diagnosis with cancer in 1941, painting and drawing became a painful exercise for Matisse. In order to continue making artworks, he began to ‘paint with scissors’, producing his ‘cut-out’ works. These works combined the three-dimensional presence of sculpture with the scale of grand paintings.
Many members of Matisse’s family had originally worked as weavers. When his illness rendered him unable to paint, Matisse used many of the same kind of scissors used by tailors to create his colourful collage works. With the help of small pins Matisse’s studio assistants would arrange the artist’s cut-out shapes in a variety of different compositions. Once Matisse agreed on a given composition, these pieces would then be stuck down.
Almost seventy years after his death, Matisse’s work continues to be highly sought-after, performing extremely well on the international art market. One of the artist’s odalisque paintings, Odalisque Couchée Aux Magnolias (1923) sold for $80.8 million – a record sale for the artist – in 2018.
In 2010, a 1978 cast of one of Matisse’s sculptures of a woman’s back – entitled Nu de dos, 4 état’ – sold for the hefty sum of $49 million at Christie’s auction house in New York. Prior to the sale, another of the artist’s odalisque paintings, L’Odalisque, Harmonie Bleue (1937) realised $33.6 million at auction.
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