“Creativity takes courage.” ~ Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was born on December 31, 1869 in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, France. His father, Émile, was a merchant, and his mother, Anna, worked alongside her husband in the family shop, advising customers in choosing house paints and color schemes. Anna was an accomplished painter in her own right, painting beautiful porcelain pieces (a fashionable art form of the day). Henri later claimed that he got his color sense from his mother.
In 1887, Matisse moved to Paris and began to study law, though he didn’t necessarily enjoy it, he passed the bar in 1888 and began his practice. After finishing law school, he began working as a court administrator.
However, in 1889 Henri had an appendicitis attack. While he was recovering, his mother brought him art supplies and he began to paint.
“From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.”
He had discovered “a kind of paradise” in painting and decided to give up law to engage fully in his art. This was a disappointment to his father, but not so for his mother. In fact, she encouraged him from the beginning and advised him to not adhere to the “rules” of art, but rather listen to his own feelings.
Two years later, Matisse returned to Paris to study art. First, he studied under Bouguereau, who trained him in the fundamental, classical style of painting. But Henri felt his teacher was overly perfectionistic. So, he left him to study under Gustave Moreau, a teacher who nurtured his progressive tendencies.
Most of Matisse’s early works (still-lives and landscapes) were dark and gloomy:
In 1897, Henri visited the painter, John Peter Russell in Brittany. It was then that he was introduced to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, particularly, the works of Vincent van Gogh (a personal friend of Russell’s), and Henri’s style of painting completely changed.
His painting, The Dinner Table, was completed in 1897, and was displayed in the Paris Salon, but the critics were disgusted by its radical, Impressionist aspects.
In 1898 Henri married Amélie Noellie Parayre, but not before telling her, “I love you dearly, mademoiselle; but I shall always love painting more.”
The couple raised Marguerite, Henri’s young daughter by Caroline (Camille) Joblaud. And in the following two years, they had two sons, Jean and Pierre. He often used Marguerite and Amélie as his models.
At the turn of the 20th century, a new art movement began and lasted around ten years. Matisse was one of the main artists of this movement which incorporated bright, expressive, and vivid colors along with bold, distinctive brushstrokes.
When their paintings were shown at the Paris Salon in 1905, art critic Louis Vauxcelles described these artists as “Les Fauves,” which is French for “wild beasts,” and from then on, the movement was known as Fauvism.
Another art critic harshly stated, “A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public.” And Henri Matisse was recognized as one of the main leaders of these wild beasts, or “Fauves.”
Yet Matisse remained undeterred. In fact, as the Fauvism movement declined, his artistic career continued to advance. Some of his finest masterpieces were created between 1906 and 1917:
In 1906, Henri met Pablo Picasso. The two artists became “frenemies” – although they were lifelong friends, they were also each other’s greatest rival. Both artists frequently painted women and still life, however Matisse drew and painted from nature, whereas Picasso painted from his own imagination.
Towards the end of his life, Matisse was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. After undergoing surgery, he was left chair and bed bound, which meant he was unable to walk and stand for any length of time to paint or sculpt. This is when he developed a new time of medium: paper collage (or decoupage).
He called it “drawing with scissors.”
He would cut colorful papers, which he had painted with gouache, into all sorts of shapes and sizes, then arrange them in fun, lively compositions and glue them together onto a substrate.
At first, these pieces were small, but eventually he started creating murals on walls, using a long stick to help him reach where he needed while seated in his wheelchair.
Henri Matisse died of a heart attack on November 3, 1954, at the age of 84. He is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. And although he was initially labeled as a “wild beast,” by the 1920s, he was recognized as a leader in the classical tradition in French painting.
His mastery of the expressive language of color and drawing, displayed in a body of work spanning over a half-century, won him recognition as a leading figure in modern art.
Want to learn more about the old masters? Check out my art course, Mixing with the Masters, Volume One.
Purchase the entire course (including six master artists) for $60:
Book Recommendations for Further Study:
Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954Matisse and Picasso: The Story of Their Rivalry and Friendship (Icon Editions)Henri Matisse: Rooms with a ViewHenri Matisse: Meet the ArtistMatisse the King of Color (Anholt’s Artists Books for Children)The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri MatisseColorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri MatisseHenri Matisse (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists)Twenty-Four Henri Matisse’s Paintings (Collection) for Kids
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*Linking up with my friends at iHomeschool Network for December Birthday Lessons.
Alisha Gratehouse is an artist, art instructor, minister’s wife, and homeschooling mom of three. Her days are filled with creating, painting, writing, drinking lots of tea, laughing with (and at) her family, and spontaneously bursting forth into song. Alisha is the author of several books including, A Life That Flourishes.