Five Things You Should Know About Matisse

“An artist must never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of a style, prisoner of a reputation, prisoner of success…” – Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse was born on 31 December 1869 in northern France to middle-class parents. In 1887 he went to Paris to study law and began working as a court administrator – which he found “tedious”. A bout of appendicitis would change Matisse’s future forever after his mother gave him some painting supplies to cheer him up while he was recovering, In painting, Matisse found bliss, “a kind of paradise”. It was a feeling he was not prepared to give up, and so, in disappointing his father and leaving his legal profession, he also became one of the greatest modern artists in the world.

His Style

Matisse is a renowned chameleon, or rather, he adapted artistic movements to him, and even pioneered some. While studying at the Académie Julian (student of out-of-the-box teacher Gustav Mareau) between 1897 and 1898 he produced a number of impressionist-style still life; but it is in 1900 we see a resemblance in style to the break-away impressionist Paul Cezanne with the colours and composition of Crockery on a Table – Cezanne, along with Van Gogh and Gaugin, would prove a profound influence to Matisse, and so, the creation of Fauvism.

Matisse is recognized as one of the (if not the) figureheads of Fauvism (read a beginners guide to Fauvism here), which though a brief movement, was of profound influence to modern art as we know it. The group (including Raoul Dufy and Georges Braque), were called ‘les Fauves’ or ‘wild beasts’, after a review of one of their exhibitions filled with paintings with heavy post-impressionist brush strokes and pioneering use of the palette.

Matisse’s most famous Fauvist painting is Bonher de Vivre (Joy of Life) 1905/6 – which is a tip of his cap to Cezanne’s The Bathers. During this period he focus heavily on nudes – a subject he felt the Impressionists had, for the most part, left unusually neglected. During this period Matisse also explored sculpture, creating a number of works in bronze, plaster and wood inspired by north African statues.

Never one to be confined, Matisse’s style evolved again around 1917, as he moved to the French Riviera and adopted a more neo-classist approach to his paintings, with a number of odalisque paintings inspired by the orient and very ‘of’ that period, such as Odalisque with Arms Raised, 1923.

After being diagnosed with abdominal cancer in 1941 and undergoing surgery, Matisse was unable to resume painting or sculpting as he was restricted to either his bed or a chair. But rather than being dispirited by his physical situation, Matisse used Moreau’s early teachings to think outside the box to inspire his most famous period: the cut-outs (it’s worth noting he did once use this technique once back in 1919 for Stravinsky’s opera Le chant du rossignol).

The Cut-Outs

From what looked like it could be the end of his career, came something new. Matisse’s cancer marked the end of Matisse as we knew him, and what evolved afterwards is what we associate Matisse with, and is what he is most loved and celebrated for. Initially Matisse would cut out pieces of paper to stick on the canvas to help him mark out areas of colour, but after a while Matisse preferred just the paper. So ultimately, he and his assistants would cut sheets of pre-painted paper in varying sizes and arrange them in a collage. The first instance of which are the images created for his artists book Jazz.

In his youth Matisse had been well travelled and his visits to North Africa had influenced him greatly; witnessing several exhibitions of Asian art, absorbed the decorative qualities of Islamic art and the robust angularities of African sculptures – and all of these influences materialized in his cut-outs. His most famous being The Fall of Icarus (1947), The Horse, the Rider and the Clown (1947) and The Snail (1953).

One of the largest cut-out projects is that of the stained glass windows he designed for the Chapel du Rosaire at Vence in 1951 – this took him 4 years to complete.

Matisse and Monique Bourgeois

During his convalescence in 1941, Matisse advertised for a nurse, and it was nursing student Monique Bourgeois who responded. Bourgeois and Matisse would become lifelong friends; while in his company Matisse discovered Bourgeois was an amateur artist, and so taught her about composition. Bourgeouis left in 1944 to join a convent, but they remained in contact – with Matisse requesting she model for him. In 1946 she became a Dominican Nun, and Matisse painted a chapel in Vence, a small town he’d moved to three years earlier, in her honour.

Matisse and Picasso

Matisse and Picasso met in 1906 and became as good-a-friends as they did rivals, constantly inspiring each other, consciously or not. Both Matisse and Picasso focused on two primary subject matters: women and still life. They varied in the execution of their practices however; with Matisse, 11 years Picasso’s senior preferring to work with his subjects in their desired surroundings, whereas Picasso would rely more profoundly on his imagination. A sure-sign of their kindred spirits, Matisse once said of their rendezvous: “We’ve got to see each other often, because when one of us goes, there are things the other will no longer be able to say to anyone.’ But he never comes.” Picasso did visit Matisse rather more frequently than is implied here.

His Most Expensive Works

L’Odalisque, harmonie bleue, painted in 1937 by Henri Matisse, realized $33.6 million in 2007, La pose hindoue went for $14,850,500 in 1995 and Harmonie jaune sold for $14,520,000 in 1992. Though many of his most famous works are housed in museums, galleries and on private collectors walls.