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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Follow Matisse's path to becoming one of the most influential artists of the 20th century

On 31 December 1869 French artist Henri Matisse was born in Le Cateau, a town in northern France, that’s well known for its textile industry. Frequently regarded as the most important French painter of the 20th century and the founder of the Fauvist movement, Matisse celebrated the power of colour throughout his career.

Although he was inspired by Cubism, he rejected it, instead choosing to blaze his own trail. He used colour as the basis of his decorative and expressive paintings and once proclaimed that he sought to create an art that would be “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair.” Principally a painter, Matisse was also a draughtsman, printmaker, and sculptor.

What was striking about Matisse’s childhood was his strict upbringing. He displayed little interest in art until he was 20 years old. From 1882 to 1887 he was educated at a school in Saint-Quentin. Then, following a year of legal studies in Paris, he returned to Saint-Quentin and a law office clerk.

He began to sit in on a drawing course at the local École Quentin-Latour, and, in 1890, whilst recovering from appendicitis, he began to paint using a box of oils his mother had given him during his period of convalescence. Matisse’s mother was the first to advise her son not to follow the “rules” of art, but rather to tap into his own emotions.

Soon he was decorating his grandparents’ home at Le Cateau. In 1891 he rejected his law career and returned to Paris to become a professional artist. That same year, he enrolled in the Académie Julian.

His earliest canvases were in the Dutch style revered by the French Realists of the 1850s. In 1892 he left the Académie Julian to attend evening classes at the École des Beaux-Arts Décoratifs and to study in the studio of the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau at the École des Beaux-Arts. Most of his early works deployed a dark, melancholy palette. Matisse painted still life and landscapes to a satisfactory standard.

Matisse continued, albeit intermittently, to study in the atelier until 1899. Nearing 30, he frequented a private academy, where part of his tuition was given by the portrait artist Eugene Carrière. Caroline Joblaud was Matisse's partner for four years during his early days when he struggled to uphold his creative direction and professional career. Caroline gave Matisse his first daughter Marguerite in 1894, who after Matisse’s marriage to Amélie Parayre, was warmly accepted into the family.

In 1896 Matisse showcased four paintings at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, which proved to be a turning point in his career. He was selected to be an associate member of the Salon society, and two of his paintings were bought by the Government. During his lifetime, this was almost the only recognition he received in his native homeland. From this point onwards he became increasingly more confident and adventurous. In 1897 and 1898, Matisse visited the painter John Peter Russell on the island Belle Île off the coast of Brittany. Russell introduced him to Impressionism and to the work of Van Gogh, who was a virtual unknown at the time.

Matisse's style underwent a metamorphosis. In the years that followed, his colours drew lighter but at the same time, more intense. In 1897 he took his first major step toward stylistic liberation and ruffled feathers at the Salon with The Dinner Table (La Desserte), a painting which blended a Renoir luminosity, with a classical composition, in deep red and green. This was to be his first masterpiece. In 1898 he married a young woman from Toulouse called Amélie Parayre. Fervently loyal, Madame Matisse would play a fundamental role in the life and career of the artist for over 40 years, until their separation in 1939. Matisse and his wife produced two sons, Jean and Pierre. The husband and wife are said to have separated because of Matisse’s close working alliance with model Lydia Delectorskaya. Following her dismissal, she returned to him after his separation and remained with him for the rest of his life.

He then left Paris for a year for London, where he studied paintings, and then worked in Corsica where he received a lasting impression of Mediterranean sunlight and colour. Later that year, upon reading a paper by Paul Signac, he became fascinated by the Pointillist idea of acquiring mixtures of colour on the retina by means of points on the canvas. After 1899 he no longer exhibited at the Salon and instead became a familiar figure in Parisian modern art circles. In 1901 he showed for the first time in the Salon des Indépendants. However, despite this show and other successes, during this period of his life Matisse was often very much living hand to mouth.

Following years in poverty, Matisse went through his dark period from 1902 to 1903. He moved briefly into Naturalism, went back to a dark palette and even informed friends that he had lost all desire to paint and had virtually decided to give up altogether. After a failed show at Vollard’s Gallery in 1904; the following year, during a stay in Collioure, he gained fresh inspiration and took his work in a new direction. Later termed ‘Fauvism’, a word that means ‘wild beast’, his experimental new style incorporated a violent use of colour and received critical acclaim.

During 1905, at the Salon D'Automne exhibiton, Matisse was seen as a leader of the movement by his peers and was considered to be the most artistic and talented member of the group. The fact that he was the oldest and best trained artist also made him a figure which others looked up to as inspiration and as a head of the movement. Popularity for Fauvist style ended in around 1907. After this period, the different artists who were the leaders of the movement, charted their own, separate paths.

At about this time, people also started to collect his work so his fortunes began to change. In 1907 a group of admirers organised for him to teach at a Left Bank art school. He held his position there until 1911. In 1908 he exhibited in New York, Moscow and Berlin. From 1905 until the end of World War I, he created more great works characterised by flowing outlines, heavy contours and flat shadows. Reminiscent of the patterned rugs, textiles and ceramics of the Islamic world, his style suggested optimism, hedonism, intelligence and sensuality. Due to the proliferation of nude women and the intense sensuality in his work, many assumed that Matisse must have been a hedonist. On the contrary, historic examination demonstrates that in reality, he was rather a self-sacrificing northerner who was driven by work, and did so in chronic anguish and anxiety, and amid sporadic breakdowns.

He began to winter on the French Riviera, and by the early 1920s he mostly resided in or around Nice. His pictures became less outragious and less commercially viable. Like many of the painters and composers during these years, Matisse relaxed his style. In a bid to win back a public that had developed a malaise for art and attempts to shock it, he became somewhat of a people pleaser. Nice period masterpieces still deserving of their popularity included the Odalisque with Magnolias and Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background.

Matisse later became interested in new techniques including: etching, lithology and printmaking. Then, at the outbreak of World War II, he became active as a graphic artist. During the final years of his life, Matisse was a rather solitary character who was separated from his wife and whose grown up children lived far and away. After 1941, when he underwent an operation for an intestinal disorder, he became bedridden. It was then that he experimented, successfully, with cut-out murals. Then in 1950 he became a victim of asthma and heart problems.

Nursed by Lydia Delectorskaya, the faithful Russian lady who had modelled for him in the early 1930s, he lived in a large studio in the Old Hôtel Regina at Cimiez, overlooking Nice. Still working on full-scale projects from his bed with the aid of a crayon attached to a pole, there were no signs of fading creative energy or of sadness in his final accomplishments. Instead, these works were among the most extreme, most exceptional, and most serene of his entire career.

At Vence, a Riviera hill town where Matisse had a villa from 1943 to 1948, after three years of planning and execution he completed his Chapelle du Rosaire for the local Dominican nuns in 1951. Here he designed stained-glass windows, murals and nearly everything inside and out, including garments and liturgical objects. Matisse passed away after a heart attack at the age of 84 on 3 November 1954 with his daughter Marguerite and Lydia Delectorskaya at his side.