Henry Matisse

Posted by Jhan Dudley on

Matisse - the Early Years

Henri Matisse was born in northern France on New Year’s Eve, 1869. He never intended to become an artist, though. As a young man in Paris, he had studied law. After passing his bar exam with distinction, he took a job as a law clerk. A bout of ill health, however, changed the course of the artist’s life and career forever. While recovering from an appendicitis operation, his mother, Anna Heloise, brought him an assortment of art supplies to help him pass the time. It was then that Matisse fell in love with painting.

In 1891, Matisse enrolled in the Académie Julian, where he studied with French academic painter, William-Adolphe Bouguereau. However, after an unsatisfying year, he left the academy, and began studying under the direction of Symbolist painter, Gustave Moreau. Moreau nurtured the artist’s more experimental inclinations. 

The Matisse style

At first, his early paintings were rather conservative. But then, in 1897, Australian painter, John Peter Russell, introduced Matisse to the work of Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh's style had an immensely liberating impact on the artist. Not long after, Matisse would become one of the foremost leaders of the Fauvism style, the 20th century’s first avant-garde art movement. Popular from about 1905 to 1910, Fauvism reinterpreted color as an objective, expressive and structural element, rather than merely as shading or filler. But, for the public, and many critics as well, his radical use of color was considered too outrageous, even offensive. Reactions were so passionate, that in 1913, when Matisse's 'Blue Nude' travelled to Chicago, students at the Art Institute burned it! Soon, though, the art world began to come around. In 1917, he moved from Paris to a suburb of Nice, on the French Riviera. There he lived throughout the 1920s, creating artworks that were warmly received by critics and collectors alike. 

In the last years of his life, Matisse was confined to a wheelchair. Painting became increasingly difficult, so he developed his 'cut-out' technique. Cutting shapes of colored paper with scissors, Matisse would then arrange them on the canvas using a long stick. He called this technique “painting with scissors.” 


Matisse's most important early patron was Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, a Russian textile magnate. “The public is against you,” Shchukin wrote to Matisse in 1910, “but the future is yours.”  The Shchukin collection is now in the Hermitage and Pushkin museums.  

Another well-known supporter and patron of Matisse was the American author, Gertrude Stein. Gertrude Stein's close friends, the Cone sisters, were major collectors of early 20th century French art. The sisters, who Matisse called “my two Baltimore ladies,” together assembled one of the biggest collections of his work in the world.  In April 1906, at a gathering at the home of Stein, Matisse met Pablo Picasso. Eleven years his junior, Picasso would become both a lifelong friend and an artistic rival. 

Matisse's use of color as 'the subject' opened up a whole new avenue of painting, and has had a lasting impact on the art world. Perhaps you may see how he has influenced my work, too.

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