Matisse, Henri (1869–1954)

views updated

MATISSE, HENRI (1869–1954)


French artist.

In his Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky penned one of the clearest encapsulations of Matisse ever put to paper: "Matisse—color, Picasso—shape." Color and pattern are without a doubt the two primordial roads to understanding this painter's career. He was in turn a painter, a sculptor, an engraver (illustrating the poems of Baudelaire, Joyce, Mallarmé, and Montherlant), a fabric designer, and a stage designer for the ballets Le chant du rossignol (Song of the nightingale) in 1920 and Le rouge et le noir (The red and the black) in 1939.

The young Matisse first began a career in law, from 1887 to 1888, before fully committing himself to painting. He began his artistic training at the École des Arts Décoratifs de Paris and then at the Académie Julian, before completing his studies at the É cole des Beaux-Arts, in Gustave Moreau's studio. However, once he left these institutions, Matisse was constantly experimenting with methods and media. Ambroise Vollard coordinated his first one-man exposition in June 1904. His first pieces (dated 1897–1903) reflect the influences of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac, and Vincent van Gogh.

A few of his paintings, including the 1905 Fenêtre à Collioure (Window at Collioure), were so brightly colored they caused a sensation at the Salon d'Automne of 1905 and propelled him to the leadership position of the fauvist movement. The work effected a fusion between two distinct modes of painting: Georges Seurat's pointillism in conjunction with the tinted areas of color first innovated by Gauguin. Luxe, calme et volupté, also shown at the Salon, afforded Matisse the opportunity to return to the pointillist technique, but this time using more intense colors, whose loudness was increased by thick borders. Both these canvases convey Matisse's reflections on the sensory power of color. After them Matisse gave up pointillism and became more interested in lines and color, as in his Femme au chapeau (1905; Woman in a hat), where the patterns, facial colors, and tinting all compete to emphasize the power of each.

The years 1905–1908 were decisive for Matisse. In 1906 he showed Le bonheur de vivre (The pleasure of living), and then the following year Nu bleu, souvenir de Biskra (Blue nude, souvenir of Biskra), both at the Salon des Indépendants. These paintings were a fulcrum for compositions to come. Indeed their subjects, including dancing women, would reappear in numerous sculptures and paintings. In this way certain "Matissian" motifs forged lines of communication stretching beyond the specificity of the two mediums.

In his 1908 La desserte, Matisse transformed space through a decorative stylization of the elements on the canvas, thereby abolishing established rules of representation. The painting's elements were treated like decorative patterns melting into one another, including the objects in the room, the wallpaper, the rug, and the table, making it possible for color to become the element that held the painting together.

Matisse received a commission from a Russian collector named Sergei Shchukin for two panels of a mural, eventually titled La danse and La musique, which were completed in 1909–1910. Through these monumental murals Matisse radically altered his style and situated himself in the context of a new modernism that distanced itself from the one being championed by cubism. Matisse in effect sought to mute the loudness of his colors and foreground the abstract background painted as large tinted areas whose borders delineated the corporeal space of the characters. The motif of dancing, already touched upon in La joie de vivre, would also appear several years later in two versions of the triptych commissioned by Albert Barnes in 1930–1933—still shown in the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania—and in his four sculptures entitled Nu de dos (1909–1930; Bare back). This triptych is a testament to the role of arabesque imagery in Matisse's work and his masterful execution of dynamism.

From 1912 to 1913 he traveled across Morocco, whose intensely colorful landscapes inspired him, and from 1914 to 1918—surprisingly ignoring the war—he began to work on the use of lines and arabesques, in search of a sufficiently supple idiom while at the same time reintroducing black to his color palette, as in Porte-fenêtre à Collioure (1914, French window at Collioure) and Le violoniste à la fenêtre (1918; The violinist at the window). In 1918 Matisse took up residence in Nice and brightened up his color palette once more, as he transcribed interiors and devoted himself to his favorite subjects: dance, nudes, and odalisques. In 1924 the first Matisse retrospective was opened to the public, in Copenhagen.

After a voyage to Tahiti in 1930, Matisse completed his first cutout gouaches in 1937 for the cover of Verve, which served as a launching pad for a series of works including Les deux danseurs (1937–1938; The two dancers), La piscine (1952; The pool), and Jazz, a book published in 1947. From 1948 to 1951 Matisse dedicated himself to designing the architecture, stained-glass windows, and frescos for the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, France, and for the Rockefeller chapel in New York state. These works represent the culmination of his explorations into the simplification of patterns and shapes. Matisse borrowed from compositions akin to his cutout gouaches, and his theories about painting as harmony and an aid to meditation were concretized in these devotional spaces. In 1950 Matisse was awarded a prize at the Twenty-fifth Biennial in Venice, and two years later he attended the opening of the Matisse Museum in his hometown, Le Cateau-Cambrésis.

See alsoExpositions; Miró, Joan; Painting, Avant-Garde; Picasso, Pablo.


Aragon, Louis. Henri Matisse, Roman. Paris, 1971.

Benjamin, Roger. Matisse's "Notes of a Painter": Criticism, Theory, and Context, 1891–1908. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1987.

Bock-Weiss, Catherine C. Henri Matisse: A Guide to Research. New York and London, 1996.

Bois, Yve Alain. Matisse et Picasso. Paris, 1998.

Bonnard, Pierre. Bonnard, Matisse: Correspondance, 1925–1946. Paris, 1991.

Clement, Russell T. Henri Matisse: A Bio-bibliography. London, 1993.

Flam, Jack. Matisse, the Dance. Washington, D.C., 1993.

——. Matisse and Picasso: The Story of Their Rivalry and Friendship. Cambridge, Mass., 2003.

Golding, John. Matisse and Cubism. Glasgow, 1978.

Herrera, Hayden. Matisse: A Portrait. London, 1993.

Jacques-Marie, Sister. Henri Matisse: The Vence Chapel. Translated by Barbara F. Freed. Nice, 2001.

Matisse, Henri. Henri Matisse: Écrits et propos sur l'art. Edited by Dominique Fourcade. Paris, 1972.

——. Matisse, Rouveyre: Correspondance. Paris, 2001.

Robinson, Annette, Henri Matisse, and Isabelle Bréda. Matisse at the Musée national d'art moderne. Paris, 1999.

Schneider, Pierre. Matisse. Translated by Michael Taylor and Bridget Strevens Romer. Paris, 1984.

Spurling, Hilary. The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869–1908. New York, 1998.

Cyril Thomas

About this article

Matisse, Henri (1869–1954)

Updated About content Print Article