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Henri Matisse {mah-tees'}, b. Dec. 31, 1869, d. Nov. 3, 1954, ranks among the greatest painters of the 20th century. He worked as a law clerk until 1891, when he began to study under the conservative painter Adolphe William Bouguereau at the Académie Julian. In 1892, Matisse entered the atelier of Gustave Moreau, whose highly finished Salon paintings were preceded by adventurous experiments with color and symbolism that were important to Matisse's later development.

Tristesse du Roi

"Tristesse du Roi"
by Henri Matisse
Musée National d'Art Moderne

During the late 1890s, Matisse became familiar with the work of the postimpressionists, especially that of Paul Cézanne, which exerted a strong influence on his style. During those years Matisse met Charles Camoin, Georges Rouault, and Albert Marquet, painters of his age who, with Maurice Vlaminck, André Derain, and Georges Braque, were to join with him in forming the Fauve group (see Fauvism).

"Les Fauves," or "Wild Beasts," was a derogatory label applied to these artists when they exhibited together in Paris in 1905. Their imagery -- composed of strokes of bright, often clashing, color -- defied all traditional canons of competent painting and shocked the general public. Recognizable subjects appear in the paintings of the Fauves -- portraits, still lifes, and interiors are especially prevalent. However, these motifs are used as pretexts for pictorial innovation, sometimes tending toward pure abstraction. Typical of Matisse's painting during this period is Woman with a Hat: Madame Matisse (1905; private collection, California), in which the sitter's dress, skin, and feathered hat are rendered in an unnaturalistic pattern of energetically brushed greens, pinks, and lavenders. The masterpieces of his early work are a series of large canvases titled The Dance (1910; Hermitage, Saint Petersburg).

Luxe, calme et volupte

"Luxe, calme et volupte"
by Henri Matisse
Musée d'Orsay


Under the influence of cubism, Matisse's palette became more somber and his shapes took on a geometrical severity for a time -- as in The Moroccans (1916; Museum of Modern Art, New York City) and The Piano Lesson (c.1917; Museum of Modern Art). During the 1920s, Matisse's color brightened again and his patterns became more complex, especially in his Odalisques, female nudes against arabesques of North African fabrics. He also adopted decorative motifs from ancient Persian art.

Matisse carried the expressive freedom of his Fauve manner into sculpture, which first achieved distinctive individuality in the flowing, semiabstract forms of La Serpentine (1909; Museum of Art, Baltimore, Md.) and The Back (1909-30; Museum of Modern Art), a series of monumental figure studies. In 1931-33 he returned to an earlier theme in The Dance, a pair of large mural paintings, one of which is at the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pa.

Throughout his career Matisse employed his serene and joyous imagery in mediums outside the fine arts -- book illustration, tapestry and rug design, and architectural decoration. From 1944 to the end of his life, he produced decoupes, in which he cut shapes from colored paper and pasted them onto fields of white. These works, which achieve an ultimate blending of Matisse's vibrant color with the energetic flow of his line, are considered by many to be his best. Matisse's supreme accomplishment, which may be seen in all his work, was to liberate color from its traditionally realistic function and to make it the foundation of a decorative art of the highest order.

Carter Ratcliff
Source: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9.01, © 1997
Bibliography: Alfred H. Barr, Matisse (1974); Jack Cowart, Matisse in Morocco (1990); John Elderfield, Henri Matisse: A Retrospective (1992); Jack Flam, Matisse: The Man and His Art (1986); Laurence Gowing, Matisse (1985); Hayden Hererra, Matisse: A Portrait (1993); W.S. Lieberman, Matisse: Fifty Years of His Graphic Art (1981); Isabelle Monot-Fontaine, The Sculpture of Henri Matisse (1984); Nicholas Watkins, Matisse (1985).
Images: "Tristesse du roi - The King's Melancholy", 1952 (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris/Photo Explorer/Copyright 1995 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York); "Luxe, calme et volupte", 1904 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris/Giraudon/Art Resource, New York/Copyright 1995 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York).
Copyrights Notice and Disclaimer: Images of artists' works displayed throughout this site have been obtained from numerous sources, including digital libraries at educational institutions, educational software, and Mark Harden's Artchive. Credit is attributed when known. Some works are considered to be in the public domain, based on current U.S. and international copyright acts. For more information on copyright laws, please refer to the Artists Rights Society and Benedict O'Mahoney's The Copyright Web Site. [See also: Copyrights.]

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Matisse Quotations:

"In the beginning you must subject yourself to the influence of nature. You must be able to walk firmly on the ground before you start walking of a tightrope." (1)

"In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows, and when there remains an energy that is all the stronger for being constrained, controlled and compressed." (2)

"I don't paint things. I only paint the difference between things." (3)

"Derive happiness in oneself from a good day's work, from illuminating the fog that surrounds us." (4)

"I have always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have a light joyousness of springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost me." (5)

"Derive happiness in oneself from a good day's work, from illuminating the fog that surrounds us." (6)

Sources of Quotations: (1) "Artists in Quotation," by Donna Ward La Cour, 1989. (2-4) "Webster's Electronic Quotebase," ed. Keith Mohler, 1994. (5) Quoted by Theodore F. Wolff in review of "The Drawings of Henri Matisse" exhibit at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art; in "Christian Science Monitor," 25 Mar 1985. (6)

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