Henri Matisse

French painter who studied law and turned to painting when recuperating from an operation in 1890.

He studied in Paris under Bouguereau and Moreau, meeting in the latter’s studio Marquet, Rouault and others, and then also under Carriere, meeting Derain. He began to send paintings to open exhibitions in 1896.

In 1897, he met Pissarro who encouraged his interest in impressionism and neo-impressionism and caused him to visit London to study Turner.

He was married and poor yet in 1899 he bought a small Bathers paintings by Cezanne, a small Gauguin painting and a Van Gogh drawing.

In 1900 he attended classes in sculpture; he was to model sculpture, mostly figures, intermittently until 1950. He had his first solo exhibition in 1904. That summer he spent at Collioure, in touch with Signac who bought his first major painting Luxe, Calme et Volupte, when it was shown in Paris the following spring: a classical composition painted in a semi-neo-impressionist style.

He and Derain worked in Collioure in the summer of 1905. When they and a number of friends showed their energetic and colorful paintings that autumn in Paris they were denounced as Fauves.

In 1906, he showed The Joy of Life, and had a solo exhibition before visiting Algeria.

In 1907, he visited Italy and also became acquainted with Picasso with whom he exchanged paintings. A Matisse school was organized by painters wanting to work under him and in 1908 the Moscow collector Shchukin began to buy from him.

His paintings had by this time assimilated their sources, becoming strikingly economical in the spirit both of classicism and of Persian painting. In his Notes of a Painter (published 1908), Matisse stressed his need to present experience through careful distillation to attain a serene image incorporating the warmth of the original impulse.

In 1910, he visited Munich to see a major exhibition of Islamic art, and the following year he went to Moscow to see to the installing of his two large paintings Dance and Music on Shehukin’s staircase.He was shown collections of Russian icons and his high praise of them was widely reported. That winter and the following he painted in Morocco, and in 1913 he had two solo exhibitions in Paris and was included, in the Armory Show. He, with Picasso, was now seen as the leading new painter in Paris, and his work was being bought by Americans, Russians and Scandinavians.

Unfit for military service, he spent the years of the First World War mostly in Nice, and subsequently tended to divide his time between Nice and Paris. His painting took on a formal severity that owed something to his contact with Gris but without abandoning his preferred subjects: female figures, interiors with figures, still lifes, portraits, landscapes.

The post-war years brought an easier style into his work and thus also acceptance in France: the Luxembourg Museum made the first French public purchase in 1921 (when the Shchukin and Morosov collections were united in Moscow as a Museum of Modern Western Art they included nearly 50 Matisses), and in 1925 he was awarded rhe Legion d’Honneur.

In 1927, he won the first prize for painting at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh and had a retrospective in New York.

In 1930, he completed his series of four large reliefs, The Back, begun in 1909.

In 1931, after a visit to the USA, he was commissioned by Barnes to paint a mural for his Foundation. The result, The Dance frieze, was installed in 1933; a previous version is in the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Both combine extreme simplification with great formal energy. In this, they characterize his 1930s style; e.g. Pink Nude, the last of 21 versions on the same canvas photographed as they proceeded, each strong, the last one as sensuous as it is succinct.

The later 1940s brought a further ‘flowering’, as he said, powerful yet decorative.

1945 saw an honorific retrospective in Paris, 1946 an exhibition in Nice and a documentary film.

In 1944-47, he worked on Jazz, 20 plates prepared as collages of shapes cut by him from paper he had coloured, reproduced by means of stencils, This brilliant work prefaced a series of large and small works done by collaging paper shapes, at once drawn and carved freehand with scissors, for a variety of purposes: a series of Blue Nudes, a frieze of bathing and diving figures for a swimming pool, vestments and stained glass windows for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, other decorations, and two large square pictures, The Snail and Memories of Oceania, all done in 1951-53. The achievement of a semi-invalid, this late phase nor only crowns his career; it shows him contributing to the great abstract art movements of the day.

It is right lo think of him as a painter. He was also one of the greatest graphic artists of the century, working in a variety of styles to create ‘a likeness, not a copy’ as he said (echoing Cezanne). He was one of the century’s boldest modellers of sculpture, finding in that process a stimulating complement to his painting and drawing. He was also an outstanding book illustrator (e.g. for poems by Mallarme, 1932; Joyce’s Ulysses, 1935), stage designer for Che Russian Ballet and, the creator of fine religious images for the church at Assy, 1948, and the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, 1948-51. His statements, like his art, reveal an ardent intelligence rooted in appreciation of the past and of other cultures and confident in the validity of personal expression.

A Matisse Museum was opened in his home town of Le Cateau-Cambresis in 1952, that in Nice was forrned after his death. Countless exhibitions, shown since 1954 around the world, have established him as a great modern master.

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