Henri Matisse

Biography of Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse is perhaps the only genuine rival to Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp in being considered the most influential artist of the 20th century. His use of color to denote shape and form and his desire to produce work of serenity to be appreciated by all was at the time radical and far-reaching.


Born in 1869 in the industrial area of Northern France, Henri Matisse was a quiet child deeply devoted to his mother. His decision to study law did not suit him and a period of convalescence after appendicitis convinced him to pursue a life dedicated to painting. Although he failed to find a place at the prestigious École des Beaux Arts he became a student of symbolist painter Gustave Moreau who would have profound influence over his work. In the early 1900s Matisse’s confident use of bright colors and light loosely grouped him together with a group of artists a critic labelled the Fauvists. He was the most outstanding personality of this revolutionary art group—which included Georges Braque—and quickly achieved notoriety in Paris. It was around this time that he first met the younger Pablo Picasso in the flat of collector and patron Gertrude Stein. The two artists became lifelong friends and competitors, with each of them keeping close tabs on the others’ output.


Henri Matisse was a master at using color and form to convey emotional expression. As he got older he became increasingly interested in sculpture, using its three-dimensionality to tackle issues he felt painting could not. Influenced by his trips to Morocco he explored Primitivism and by the 1920s was being increasingly hailed as an upholder of the French traditional school of painting. However, the conservative direction of his work was troubling to him and he began travelling to inspire his experimental side. Later in life, confined to a wheelchair and unable to easel paint like before, Matisse turned to drawing and paper cut-outs. Matisse’s underlying aim was always to discover “the essential character of things” and produce an “art of balance, purity and serenity”. Although at times celebrating the decorative, his work was not purely devoted to contentment and his use of pattern and color could be highly unsettling.


Henri Matisse’s frequent use of nude women and the sensuality of their movement was in contrast to his existence which was marked by hard work and dedication. Not just a painter he was also a prolific and skilled printmaker and produced 12 lives d’artiste during his lifetime. Matisse died of a heart attack at the age of 84 on November 3, 1954. One of his last projects was to design the glass windows of the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence in 1951. He also established a museum dedicated to his work in 1952 in Le Cateau-Cambrésis where the artist was born. With work that spanned well over 50 years, his mastery of the expressive language of form and color brought him astonishing recognition as a major figure in modern art. Featured in all major collections around the world, Matisse remains one of the world’s most prized artists.

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