Henri Matisse, born at Le Cateau-Cambrésis (Nord,France), was one of the leaders of avant-garde art before the First World War. He was famous for his brilliant and expressive use of color, and his bold innovations. His artistic identity evolved slowly and with apparent difficulty. Although he was 30 at the beginning of the century, it was not until 1905 that he discovered his own vision. Thereafter he rapidly became notorious as the leader of the group of painters known as the Fauves. He lived to become, in his old age, internationally honored as a master.
At 17, Matisse was set to study law by his father, a corn merchant. It is said that when he was 20 and convalescing from an appendectomy his mother gave him a paintbox and so he began painting. His earliest works, still lifes of 1890, are strikingly assured in a conventional academic manner. He quickly became technically skillful and for several years was able to supplement his meager allowance by making official copies in the Louvre.
He was never officially accepted as a student at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1891, he was allowed to leave the lawyer's office in St Quentin and go to Paris where he attended the Académie Julian under Bouguereau, but he soon transferred unofficially to Gustave Moreau's classes at the École des Beaux-Arts. Among his fellow students were Marquet, Manguin, and Rouault, all younger than him.
In 1896, Matisse appeared to be on the threshold of his professional career. His painting of a woman reading in a lamplit interior, in the tradition of Henri Fantin-Latour, was shown at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and was bought by the State for Rambouillet; the Société Nationale itself elected him an associate member, and he was introduced to Pissarro and Rodin. The following year, he showed The Dinner Table (private collection) at the Salon. This large canvas, depicting a servant arranging flowers on a table sumptuously spread for a large family meal, was painted in brilliant impressionist colors. His first major composition, it was badly hung and harshly criticized.
From that time onward, the course of Matisse's career changed radically. For seven years he worked constantly. But his canvases were researches rather than achievements, being either sketches roughly laid in and then abandoned, or labored exercises killed by overworking. He developed no consistent style but conducted a variety of experiments in the use of brilliant color.
In 1898 he married, and the following year bought with money from his wife's dowry a small painting, Three Bathers, by Cézanne. Though he never directly imitated Cézanne's style, this painting became a talisman for him which he cherished for many years, until in 1936 he presented it to the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
But the years of study and hardship continued. In 1900 Matisse attended evening classes in sculpture, and in later years sculptured many important works in bronze. He painted exhibition decorations for a living, and in 1902 Mme Matisse opened a millinery shop.
In 1904 Matisse worked with Paul Signac at St Tropez, and adopted his own, intuitive version of pointillisme. In this technique he painted an idyllic fantasy of women bathing on a beach (1905; private collection). Its title, Luxe, Calme et Volupté, he took from Baudelaire's poem “The Invitation to the Voyage”, an invitation to a loved one to a dream land where all is harmony and beauty, “luxury, tranquillity and delight”. The picture and its title announce Matisse's arrival at his own vision of art.
But his own version of pointillisme was too rigid for him. In 1905 at Collioure, where he spent the summer with the much younger Derain, he painted small canvases with an apparent careless abandon he had never dared before. Open Window, Collioure (1905; Collection of John Hay Whitney, New York), bold in its calligraphy and indifferent to the original colors of the motif, captures the sparkle of light glancing off the ripples of the harbor alive with bobbing boats. He painted two portraits of Mme Matisse (Woman with the Hat, Walter A. Haas Collection, San Francisco; Madame Matisse: the Green Line, State Art Museum, Copenhagen) that were no less bold, and he vied with Derain as they painted each other's portraits (André Derain, 1905; Tate Gallery, London).
At the Salon d'Automne that year, Matisse's new canvases and works of similar violence by Derain, Vlaminck, Marquet, and others, were hung together in one room. The public was appalled by such crude daubs and the painters were called “Fauves”—wild beasts. The Woman with the Hat (1905; Walter A. Haas Collection, San Francisco) caused a particular sensation.
But this new style had admirers too, and a wealthy American brother and sister living in Paris, Leo and Gertrude Stein, met Matisse and bought this work. The following year, at the Salon des Indépendants, Matisse showed an ambitious composition, Joy of Life (1906; Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania). It was an Arcadian scene with a naked nymphs and shepherds, drawn with a new calligraphic boldness and with the clear coloring of an Oriental rug. Leo Stein bought it immediately.
Leo remained Matisse's friend, admirer, and patron (Gertrude favored Picasso) and soon other collectors began to vie for Matisse's new works. From 1906 his patrons included the Cone sisters of Baltimore, after 1908 the Russian merchant Sergei Shchukin, and from 1912 another Russian, Morosov. In 1909, Shchukin commissioned two important works, Dance (study, 1909, Museum of Modern Art, New York; oil, 1910, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) and Music (1910; Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg). Between them the Russians bought almost 50 works; these were acquired by the Russian state in 1923.
With this patronage, Matisse was able to visit Algeria in 1906. In later years he traveled widely, to Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia, and the U.S.A.; but his most significant visits were to North Africa in 1906, 1911, and 1912, and to Tahiti in 1930.
In 1908 Matisse was encouraged to open a small school, the Atelier Matisse, where he taught for a short time. In that same year he published his first theoretical essay “Notes of a Painter”, in La Grande Revue (25 December 1908).
He was rejected for military service in 1914; he spent the War years painting, at Issy, Paris, and Nice. For the rest of his life he was to spend much of his time either in Paris or Nice.
With the return of peace, Matisse became more and more widely recognized as the master of the École de Paris and of modern painting. In 1925, he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He worked in a growing variety of media. In addition to painting and sculpture, he designed for the ballet and designed illustrated editions: of Mallarmé's poems for Skira (1932), Joyce's Ulysses (1935), Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal (1943), and the Florilège des Amours de Ronsard (1941). His most important book was Jazz (1947) which combined his colored designs and a poetic essay on art in his own script.
In 1931 the great American collector, Dr Albert C. Barnes commissioned murals for the hall of the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pa. When Matisse had completed the panels in his Paris studio they were found to be to wrong measurements, so he painted completely new versions which were successfully installed.
Matisse's last commission, despite his earlier lack of religious conviction, was the small Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominican nuns, Vence, begun in 1948 and consecrated in 1951.
After 1941, the aging Matisse suffered increasing ill health and often worked in bed. He died on 3 November 1954 at Nice, shortly before his 85th birthday.
Matisse first wrote about his art in 1908, in “Notes of a Painter”, and 44 years later, when he was 82, he insisted that in spirit he had remained unchanged, because “all this time I have sought the same ends, which perhaps I have achieved in different ways”. His end was always expression. Expression was a strenuous, paradoxical achievement, the result of the artist's intuitive pictorial response to his experience of the object. Thus he painted in many different ways that at first sight show little consistency, modeling forms heavily in one canvas and painting with the flat simplicity of a child in another. He avoided any system of representation that depended on applied skills, but sought the pure spontaneous expression of each unique experience. Nevertheless, the metamorphoses of his style may be seen to follow a broad sequence of development.
Immediately after the sophisticated abstractions of The Joy of Life, he painted a number of canvases (notably Le Luxe I, 1907, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris; and Le Luxe II, 1907, State Art Museum, Copenhagen) in which he developed a childlike or primitive simplicity of line. (Matisse was among the first to collect Negro art.) This search for uncompromisingly “pure” form and color culminated in the Hermitage Museum's Dance and Music (1909 - 10). Drawn with a stark primitive outline and painted in the three basic colors of blue sky, green earth, and scarlet flesh, they are as theoretical as any later canvases by Kandinsky or Mondrian, but remain representational. The other single work with a similar doctrinaire spirit is a still life of 1914 entitled Lemons: Still Life of Lemons the forms of which correspond to that of a drawing of a black vase on the wall (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island).
The austere abstractions of Dance and Music were followed shortly afterwards by the fruits of his first visit to North Africa, a series of large scenes of Islamic life glowing with sensuous color. They appear effort-lessly spontaneous, and their simple outlines could be mistaken as genuinely naive. These were followed by a further advance towards abstraction in Open Window, Collioure (1914; private collection) in which vertical bands of green, gray, and pale blue that are the window shutters frame a plain black rectangle, an entirely opaque night sky. Composition: Yellow Curtain (1915; private collection) is too big to be its pendant, yet is, formally, its daytime equivalent.
About the beginning of the War, Matisse showed the influence of Cubism. In Mlle Yvonne Landsberg (1914; Philadelphia Museum of Art) the negroid mask and expanding arcs scratched in the paint appear unconvincing. But Moroccans (1916; Museum of Modern Art, New York), though undoubtedly reflecting post-Cubist abstraction, is one of the most mysterious and powerful of his images. Its boldly silhouetted shapes anticipate the qualities of his own cut paper compositions of 20 years later.
As the War continued, Matisse in the isolation of his Paris studio painted a number of large canvases: somber, noble images of the studio, with Paris glimpsed through the window; they recall in their scale and spatial quality some of the great canvases of Manet.
In a hotel room in Nice in 1919, Matisse painted a totally different kind of Artist and his Model (Collection of Dr and Mrs Harry Bakwin, New York). The artist, by the quality of his line and the tentative washes of color, might be an elderly amateur faced with his first nude model. But ironically this naive gentleman is included in the picture; and the picture itself, despite its sketchy brushmarks, is taut and delicately precise in its spatial relationships. For another ten years, Matisse painted a sequence of such small genre scenes of the hedonism of sunlit Mediterranean hotels, in which the qualities of Impressionism or the intimate vision of his friend Bonnard were matched with an enigmatic simplicity.
In contrast, the Barnes murals were perhaps the most mannered inventions of Matisse's career. The flat shapes of the dancers, anticipating his later use of cut paper, leap into and out of the lunettes with a brittle vitality. Nevertheless, they point towards the painter's return to a more monumental imagery. Over the last 20 years of his long life, Matisse perfected his last, most consistent, mode of representation. He worked with thin, fluid paint, washing off unacceptable essays and starting afresh on the cleaned canvas, so preserving the vital quality of spontaneity. He drew with broad gestures, avoiding foreshortenings, and filling the canvas with grand arabesques which he charged with dazzling combinations of glowing color. Though many of these canvases are small they have a monumental quality.
After the Second World War, Matisse began to work increasingly in cut paper. He had immense sheets of paper washed over with gouache colors and then cut out his shapes and stuck them together (for example, The Snail, 1953; Tate Gallery, London). He said: “Cutting into living color reminds me of the sculptor's direct carving.” Though he cut often trite vegetable shapes, he composed them into splendid harmonies that are a fitting climax to his career.
His last masterpiece was the Dominican chapel of Notre-Dame du Rosaire (1947 - 51) at Vence, a small spare space made large and noble by the subtle balance of simple elements: the deliberately schematic black outline drawings on the white tiled walls, illuminated by the abstract colors flooding exultantly through the windows.
Further reading Aragon, H. Matisse: a Novel (2 vols.), London (1972). Barr, A.H. Jr Matisse: his Art and his Public, New York (1951). Diehl, G. Henri Matisse, New York and Paris (1958). Elsen, A.E. The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, New York (1972). Escholier, R. Matisse: a Portrait of the Artist and the Man, London and New York (1960). Flam, J.D. Matisse on Art, London (1973). Gowing, L. Matisse, London (1979). Reverdy, P. and Duthuit, G. The Last Works of Matisse, New York (1958). Schneider, P. Henri Matisse: a Retrospective Exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris (1970).
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