The Art of talking about Art – 11: M for Matisse

Since France is still in the news, it’s only right that we continue to acquaint ourselves with France a little better. And when the subject is France, talk of Art can’t be that far behind. Speaking of art, let’s talk about one of the greatest painters that France has been kind enough to give to this world. Let’s meet Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse.

Since France is still in the news, it’s only right that we continue to acquaint ourselves with France a little better. And when the subject is France, talk of Art can’t be that far behind. Speaking of art, let’s talk about one of the greatest painters that France has been kind enough to give to this world. Let’s meet Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse.

Henri Matisse was born December 31, 1869, in Le Cateau in northern France. Over a career spanning nearly six very eventful decades, he worked in all media, from painting to sculpture to printmaking. Although his subjects were traditional—nudes, figures in landscapes, portraits, interior views—his revolutionary use of brilliant colour and exaggerated form to express emotion made him one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and one of the pioneers of a style known as Fauvism*.

Early Matisse

Henri Matisse was raised in the small industrial town of Bohain-en-Vermandois in northern France. His family worked in the grain business. As a young man Matisse worked as a legal clerk and then studied for a law degree in Paris in 1887-89. Returning to a position in a law office in the town of Saint-Quentin, he began taking a drawing class in the mornings before he went to work. When he was 21, Matisse began painting while recuperating from an illness, which is when he discovered his true calling as an artist.

In 1891, Matisse moved to Paris for artistic training. He took instruction from famous, older artists at well-known schools such as the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts. These schools taught according to the “academic method,” which required working from live models and copying the works of Old Masters, but Matisse was also exposed to the recent Post-Impressionist work of Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh while living in Paris.

Matisse began to show his work in large group exhibitions in Paris in the mid-1890s, including the traditional Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and his work received some favourable attention. He travelled to London and to Corsica, and in 1898 he married Amélie Parayre, with whom he would have three children.

Making Matisse

Come the 20th century, Matisse came under the more progressive influence of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who painted in a “Pointillist” style with small dots of colour rather than full brushstrokes. He stopped exhibiting at the official Salon and began submitting his art to the more progressive Salon des Indépendants in 1901. In 1904 he had his first one-man exhibition at the gallery of dealer Ambroise Vollard.

Matisse had a major creative breakthrough in the years 1904-05. A visit to Saint-Tropez in southern France inspired him to paint bright, light-dappled canvases such as Luxe, calme et volupté (1904-05), and a summer in the Mediterranean village of Collioure produced his major works Open Window and Woman with a Hat in 1905.

Luxe, Calme et Volupté (“Luxury, Calm and Pleasure”)

Open Window

Woman with a Hat (Femme au chapeau)

He exhibited both paintings in the 1905 Salon d’Automne exhibition in Paris. In a review of the show, a contemporary art critic mentioned the bold, distorted images painted by certain artists he nicknamed “fauves,” or “wild beasts.”

Painting in the style that came to be known as Fauvism, Matisse continued to emphasize the emotional power of sinuous lines, strong brushwork and acid-bright colours in works such as Le bonheur de vivre, a large composition of female nudes in a landscape. Like much of Matisse’s mature work, this scene captured a mood rather than merely trying to depict the world realistically.

Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life)

More Matisse

Once he had found (and founded) his own style, Matisse enjoyed a greater degree of success. He was able to travel to Italy, Germany, Spain and North Africa for inspiration. He bought a large studio in a suburb of Paris and signed a contract with the prestigious art dealers of Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. His art was purchased by prominent collectors such as Gertrude Stein in Paris and the Russian businessman Sergei I. Shchukin, who commissioned Matisse’s important pair of paintings Dance I and La Musique in 1909-10.

La Danse (Dance I)

La Musique (Music)

In his works of the 1910s and 1920s, some of Matisse’s paintings, like Piano Lesson (1916), explored the structures and geometry of Cubism, the movement pioneered by Matisse’s lifelong rival Pablo Picasso. Yet despite his radical approach to colour and form, Matisse’s subjects were often traditional: scenes of his own studio, portraits of friends and family, arrangements of figures in rooms or landscapes.

The Piano Lesson

In 1917 Matisse began spending winters on the Mediterranean, and in 1921 he moved to the city of Nice on the French Riviera. From 1918-30, he most frequently painted female nudes in carefully staged settings within his studio, making use of warm lighting and patterned backgrounds. He also worked extensively in printmaking during these years.

Late Matisse

In his later career, Matisse received several major commissions, such as a mural for the art gallery of collector Dr. Albert Barnes of Pennsylvania, titled Dance II, in 1931-33. He also drew book illustrations for a series of limited-edition poetry collections.

In 1941 Matisse was diagnosed with cancer and, following surgery, he started using a wheelchair. After surgery, Matisse was often bedridden; however, he continued to work from a bed in his studio. When necessary, he would draw with a pencil or charcoal attached to the end of a long pole that enabled him to reach the paper or canvas.

His late work was just as experimental and vibrant as his earlier artistic breakthroughs had been. It included his 1947 book Jazz, which placed his own thoughts on life and art with lively images of coloured paper cut-outs. This project led him to devising works that were cut-outs on their own, most notably several series of expressively shaped human figures cut from bright blue paper and pasted to wall-size background sheets (such as Swimming Pool, 1952).

Matisse died on November 3, 1954, at the age of 84, in Nice. He was buried in nearby Cimiez. He is still regarded as one of the most innovative and influential artists of the 20th century.

The Swimming Pool in Matisse’s dining room at the Hôtel Régina, Nice, 1952

Quoting Matisse

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” – Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse

*Fauvism is the style of les Fauves (French for “the wild beasts”), a loose group of early twentieth-century Modern artists whose works emphasised painterly qualities and strong colour over the representational or realistic values retained by retained by Impressionism. While Fauvism as a style began around 1900 and continued beyond 1910, the movement as such lasted only a few years, 1904–1908, and had three exhibitions. The leaders of the movement were Henri Matisse and André Derain.

Previous Editions:

Update: We have compiled the entire series of blog posts on The Art of Talking About Art in one place. To read other editions of the series, click here.

Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.


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