Henri Matisse: His Life and Work

Matisse working at his desk in bed

Ullman / Getty Images

Henri Émile Benoît Matisse (December 31, 1869 – November 3, 1954) is considered one of the most influential painters of the 20th century, and one of the leading Modernists. Known for his use of vibrant colors and simple forms, Matisse helped to usher in a new approach to art. Matisse believed that the artist must be guided by instinct and intuition. Although he began his craft later in life than most artists, Matisse continued to create and innovate well into his 80s.

Early Years

Henri Matisse was born on December 31, 1869, in Le Cateau, a small town in northern France. His parents, Émile Hippolyte Matisse and Anna Gérard, ran a store that sold grain and paint. Matisse was sent to school in Saint-Quentin, and later to Paris, where he earned his capacité—a type of law degree.

Returning to Saint-Quentin, Matisse found a job as a law clerk. He came to despise the work, which he considered pointless. In 1890, Matisse was stricken by an illness that would forever alter the young man's life and the world of art.

Late Bloomer

Weakened by a severe bout of appendicitis, Matisse spent nearly all of 1890 in his bed. During his recuperation, his mother gave him a box of paints to keep him occupied. Matisse's new hobby was a revelation.

Despite having never shown any interest in art or painting, the 20-year old suddenly found his passion. He would later say that nothing had ever truly interested him before, but once he discovered painting, he could think of nothing else.

Matisse signed up for early-morning art classes, leaving him free to continue the law job he so hated. After a year, Matisse moved to Paris to study, eventually earning admission to the leading art school. Matisse's father disapproved of his son's new career but continued to send him a small allowance.

Student Years

The bearded, bespectacled Matisse often wore a serious expression and was anxious by nature. Many fellow art students thought Matisse resembled a scientist more than an artist and thus nicknamed him "the doctor."

Matisse studied three years with French painter Gustave Moreau, who encouraged his students to develop their own styles. Matisse took that advice to heart, and soon his work was being displayed at prestigious salons. One of his early paintings, Woman Reading, was bought for the home of the French president in 1895. Matisse formally studied art for nearly a decade (1891-1900).

While attending art school, Matisse met Caroline Joblaud. The couple had a daughter, Marguerite, born in September 1894. Caroline posed for several of Matisse's early paintings, but the couple separated in 1897. Matisse married Amélie Parayre in 1898, and they had two sons together, Jean and Pierre. Amélie would also pose for many of Matisse's paintings.

"Wild Beasts" Invade the Art World

Matisse and his group of fellow artists experimented with different techniques, distancing themselves from traditional art of the 19th century.

Visitors to a 1905 exhibition at the Salon d'Automne were shocked by the intense colors and bold strokes used by the artists. An art critic dubbed them les fauves, French for "the wild beasts." The new movement came to be known as Fauvism (1905-1908), and Matisse, its leader, was considered "King of the Fauves."

Despite receiving some scathing criticism, Matisse continued to take risks in his painting. He sold some of his work but struggled financially for a few more years. In 1909, he and his wife could finally afford a house in the Paris suburbs.

Influences on Matisse's Style

Matisse was influenced early in his career by Post-Impressionists Gauguin, Cézanne, and van Gogh. Mentor Camille Pissarro, one of the original Impressionists, gave advice that Matisse embraced: "Paint what you observe and feel." Travel to other countries inspired Matisse as well, including visits to England, Spain, Italy, Morocco, Russia, and later, Tahiti.

Cubism (a modern art movement based upon abstract, geometric figures) influenced Matisse's work from 1913-1918. These WWI years were difficult for Matisse. With family members trapped behind enemy lines, Matisse felt helpless, and at 44, he was too old to enlist. The darker colors used during this period reflect his dark mood.

The Master

By 1919, Matisse had become internationally known, exhibiting his work throughout Europe and in New York City. From the 1920s on, he spent much of his time in Nice in the south of France. He continued to create paintings, etchings, and sculptures. Matisse and Amélie drifted apart, separating in 1939.

Early in WWII, Matisse had a chance to flee to the United States but chose to stay in France. In 1941, after successful surgery for duodenal cancer, he nearly died from complications. Bedridden for three months, Matisse spent the time developing a new art form, which became one of the artist's trademark techniques. He called it "drawing with scissors," a method of cutting out shapes from painted paper, later assembling them into designs.

Chapel in Vence

Matisse's final project (1948-1951) was creating the decor for a Dominican chapel in Vence, a small town near Nice, France. He was involved in every aspect of design, from the stained-glass windows and crucifixes to the wall murals and priests' robes. The artist worked from his wheelchair and used his color-cutout technique for many of his designs for the chapel. Matisse died on November 3, 1954, after a brief illness. His works remain a part of many private collections and are on exhibit in major museums throughout the world.

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Daniels, Patricia E. "Henri Matisse: His Life and Work." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/henri-matisse-1779828. Daniels, Patricia E. (2023, April 5). Henri Matisse: His Life and Work. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/henri-matisse-1779828 Daniels, Patricia E. "Henri Matisse: His Life and Work." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/henri-matisse-1779828 (accessed June 5, 2023).