Henri Matisse
Biography of Post-Impressionist Painter, Leader of Fauvism.

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Henri Matisse (1869-1954)


Biography of Henri Matisse
Post-War Fame
Matisse's Development as a Painter

For analysis of works by colourist painters like Henri Matisse,
see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Famous Paintings

The Dance (1910) Hermitage,
St Petersburg. Surely one of the
greatest 20th-century paintings
of the Paris School.

Nude (Black and Gold) (1908)
Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
The non-natural gold colour adds
great power to the female form.

Woman with a Hat (1905)
The most scandalous exhibit at
the 1905 Autumn Salon.

It illustrates Matisse's
famous comment: "Seek the
strongest colour effect possible,
the content is of no importance."

Woman with a Green Parasol
on a Balcony (1919)
Private Collection.
Notice the blend of horizontal
and vertical lines, the subtle
creation of depth, and the
masterly use of space.


The leader of the Fauves group, a highly influential movement in early 20th century French painting, Matisse was a key exponent of Post-Impressionism, noted for his use of colour as a means of expression rather than description. Indeed, colour played a central role throughout his painting career, as can be seen in his Portrait of Madame Matisse, The Dessert - Harmony in Red, his Nu Bleu series of blue nudes and the vibrant paper collages he produced in his later years. Many of these and other works by Matisse are available as prints in the form of poster art. Matisse was also noted for his creative flouting of the conventional rules of drawing and perspective, as well as his fluid and innovative draughtsmanship. He painted not what he saw, but what he felt about what he saw: see, for instance, Nasturtiums and the 'Dance' (1912, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Even after the demise of Fauvism, Matisse remained an important figure within the expressionist movement, continuing to rely on colour to communicate his joyful vision of bold pattern and striking ornament, (eg. in The Moorish Screen, and Lady in Blue). He is regarded as one of the important French expressionist painters.

By 1909, Matisse had achieved worldwide fame. His avant-garde methods aroused considerable controversy, but - supported by the art-collector Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) as well as patrons among the Stein family, and the Russians Shchukin and Morosov - Matisse maintained his position as a prominent member of the Post-Impressionist painting movement and is now regarded as one of the most influential and persistently innovative painters of the twentieth century. See, for instance, Mark Rothko's paintings (1938-70). This despite the advent of Picasso and Cubism in the early 1900s, which became the cutting edge of modern art at the time.


Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest scenic painting,
see: Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting,
see: Best Genre Painters.

Biography of Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

Henri Matisse, born at Le Cateau-Cambresis (Nord, France), was one of the leaders of avant-garde modern art before the First World War. He was famous for his brilliant and expressive use of colour, and his bold innovations. His artistic identity evolved slowly and with apparent difficulty. Although he was 30 at the beginning of the century, it was not until 1905 that he discovered his own vision. Thereafter he rapidly became notorious as the leader of the group of painters known as the Fauves. He lived to become, in his old age, internationally honoured as a master.

At 17, Matisse was set to study law by his father, a corn merchant. It is said that when he was 20 and convalescing from an appendectomy his mother gave him a paint-box and so he began painting. His earliest works, still-lifes of 1890, are strikingly assured in a conventional academic manner. In others, he explored both Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. He quickly became technically skilful and for several years was able to supplement his meagre allowance by making official copies of Old Masters in the Louvre, a practice he maintained for many years.

See: Post-Impressionist Painters.

For a list of painters like
Henri Matisse, see:
Modern Artists.

For the finest works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

For a list of the highest prices paid
for works of art by famous painters:
Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings.

He was never officially accepted as a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1891, he was allowed to leave the lawyer's office in St Quentin and go to Paris where he attended the Academie Julian under Bouguereau, but he soon transferred unofficially to the classes of the great symbolist painter Gustave Moreau at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Among his fellow students were Marquet, Manguin, Camoin and Rouault, all younger than him.

In 1896, Matisse appeared to be on the threshold of his professional career. His painting of a woman reading in a lamplit interior, in the tradition of Henri Fantin-Latour, was shown at the Salon de la Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and was bought by the State for Rambouillet; the Societe Nationale itself elected him an associate member, and he was introduced to Pissarro and Rodin. The following year, he showed The Dinner Table (private collection) at the Salon. This large canvas, depicting a servant arranging flowers on a table sumptuously spread for a family meal, was painted in brilliant Impressionist colours. His first major composition, it was badly hung and harshly criticized.
From that time onward, the course of Matisse's career changed radically. For seven years he worked constantly. But his canvases were researches rather than achievements, being either sketches roughly laid in and then abandoned, or laboured exercises killed by overworking. He developed no consistent style but conducted a variety of experiments in the use of brilliant colour.

In 1898 he married, and the following year bought with money from his wife's dowry a small painting, Three Bathers, by Cezanne. Though he never directly imitated Cezanne's style, this painting became a talisman for him which he cherished for many years, until in 1936 he presented it to the Musee d' Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

But the years of study and hardship continued. In 1900 Matisse attended evening classes in sculpture, and in later years sculptured many important works in bronze. He painted exhibition decorations for a living, and in 1902 Madame Matisse opened a millinery shop.


In 1904, Matisse worked with Paul Signac at St Tropez, and adopted his own, intuitive version of pointillism (a type of Divisionism). In this technique he painted an idyllic fantasy of women bathing on a beach (1905; private collection). Its title, Luxe, Calme et Volupte, he took from Baudelaire's poem "The Invitation to the Voyage", an invitation to a loved one to a dreamland where all is harmony and beauty, "luxury, tranquillity and delight". The picture and its title announce Matisse's arrival at his own vision of art.

But his own version of Divisionism was too rigid for him. In 1905 at Collioure, where he spent the summer with the younger Andre Derain, he painted small canvases with an apparent careless abandon he had never dared before. Open Window, Collioure (1905; Collection of John Hay Whitney, New York), bold in its calligraphy and indifferent to the original colours of the motif, captures the sparkle of light glancing off the ripples of the harbor alive with bobbing boats. He painted two portraits of Madame Matisse (Woman with the Hat, Waiter A. Haas Collection, San Francisco; Madame Matisse: the Green Line, State Art Museum, Copenhagen) that were no less bold, and he vied with Derain as they painted each other's portraits (Andri Derain, 1905; Tate Gallery, London).



At the Salon d'Automne that year (1905), Matisse's new canvases, together with other works of similar optical violence by Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), Albert Marquet (1875-1947), Othon Friesz (1879-1949), Louis Valtat (1869-1952), the versatile Henri-Charles Manguin (1874-1949), Charles Camoin (1879-1964), and Jean Puy (1876-1960), were hung together in one room. The public was appalled by such crude daubs and the painters were called "Fauves" - meaning wild beasts. The display room was christened "La Cage aux Fauves". Of all the paintings, The Woman with the Hat caused the greatest sensation.

But this new style had admirers too, and a wealthy American brother and sister living in Paris, Leo and Gertrude Stein, met Matisse and bought this work. The following year, at the Salon des Independants, Matisse showed an ambitious composition, Joy of Life (1906; Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania). It was an Arcadian scene with naked nymphs and shepherds, drawn with a new calligraphic boldness and with the clear colouring of an Oriental rug. Leo Stein bought it immediately.

Leo remained Matisse's friend, admirer, and patron (Gertrude favoured Picasso) and soon other collectors began to vie for Matisse's new works. From 1906 his patrons included the Cone sisters of Baltimore, after 1908 the Russian merchant Sergei Shchukin, and from 1912 on, Ivan Morozov. In 1909, Shchukin commissioned two important expressionist paintings, Dance (study, 1909, Museum of Modern Art, New York; oil, 1910, Hermitage Museum) and Music (1910; Hermitage Museum). Between them the Russians bought almost 50 works; these were acquired by the Russian state in 1923.

With this patronage, Matisse was able to visit Algeria in 1906. (He had a keen interest in African art and other forms of Primitivism/Primitive Art.) In later years he travelled widely, to Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia, and the USA; but his most significant visits were to North Africa in 1906, 1911, 1912 and 1913 (with his close friend Albert Marquet, 1875-1947), and to Tahiti in 1930 to study Oceanic art.

In 1908 Matisse was encouraged to open a small school, the Atelier Matisse, where he taught for a short time. In that same year he published his first theoretical essay "Notes of a Painter", in La Grande Revue (25 December 1908). He was also given his first one-man show in America, thanks to the dealer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) and his Paris friend Edward Steichen (1879-1973), at their "291" gallery in New York.

He was rejected for military service in 1914; he spent the war years painting, at Issy, Paris, and Nice. For the rest of his life he was to spend much of his time either in Paris or Nice.

Post-War Fame

With the return of peace, Matisse became more and more widely recognized as the master of the Ecole de Paris and of modern painting. In 1925, he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. He worked in a growing variety of media. In addition to fine art painting and sculpture, he designed for the ballet and designed illustrated editions: of Mallarme's Poems for Skira (1932), Joyce's Ulysses (1935), Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal (1943), and the Florilege des Amours de Ronsard (1941). His most important book was Jazz (1947) which combined his coloured designs and a poetic essay on art in his own script. It was during the aftermath of World War I that Matisse appointed Paul Rosenberg (1881-1959) as his agent and dealer.

In 1930, the eminent English art critic and champion of Post-Impressionsm Roger Fry (1866-1934) published an important monograph on Matisse and his art. In 1931, the great American collector, Dr Albert C. Barnes commissioned murals for the hall of the Barnes Foundation, Merion, USA. When Matisse had completed the panels in his Paris studio they were found to be the wrong size, so he painted completely new versions which were successfully installed.

Matisse's last commission, despite his earlier lack of religious conviction, was the small Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominican Nuns, Vence, begun in 1948 and consecrated in 1951.

After 1941, the aging Matisse suffered increasing ill health and often worked in bed. He died on 3 November 1954 at Nice, shortly before his 85th birthday.

Matisse's Development as a Painter

In his colours and technique, Matisse's early work was influenced by an older generation of his fellow-artists, like Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). In the summer of 1904, while visiting Provence, Matisse discovered the bright light of southern France, and began using a much brighter palette. Also, he became familiar, through Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Henri-Edmond Cross, with the Pointillist technique of small colour dots (points), pioneered by Georges Seurat (1859-91) in the 1880s. As a result, Matisse produced his Pointillist masterpiece Luxe, Calme et Volupte (1904-5), and exhibited, along with other Fauvist painters at the Salon d'Automne in Paris (1905), and the Salon des Independants (1906), to great acclaim. For two years, Fauvism became hugely influential and had a major impact on artists in Paris, including expatriates like the Scottish Colourists (c.1904-30). However, not all art critics admired his work. After viewing Matisse's vividly coloured paintings, the art critic Louis Vauxcelles insultingly described the paintings as being the work of wild beasts (fauves), and the name stuck.

Matisse himself first wrote about his art in 1908, in "Notes of a Painter", and 44 years later, when he was 82, he insisted that in spirit he had remained unchanged, because "all this time I have sought the same ends, which perhaps I have achieved in different ways". His end was always expressionism. For more about his contribution to early 20th century expressionism, see: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).

Expression was a strenuous, paradoxical achievement, the result of the artist's intuitive pictorial response to his experience of the object. Thus he painted in many different ways that at first sight show little consistency, modelling forms heavily in one canvas and painting with the flat simplicity of a child in another. He avoided any system of representation that depended on applied skills, but sought the pure spontaneous expression of each unique experience. Nevertheless, the metamorphoses of his style may be seen to follow a broad sequence of development.


Immediately after the sophisticated abstractions of The Joy of Life, he painted a number of canvases (notably Le Luxe I, 1907, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris; and Le Luxe II, 1907, State Art Museum, Copenhagen) in which he developed a childlike or primitive simplicity of line. (Matisse was among the first to collect Negro art.) This search for uncompromisingly "pure" form and colour culminated in the Hermitage Museum's Dance and Music (1909-10). Drawn with a stark primitive outline and painted in the three basic colours of blue sky, green earth, and scarlet flesh, they are as theoretical as any later canvases by Kandinsky or Mondrian, but remain representational. The other single work with a similar doctrinaire spirit is a still life of 1914 entitled Lemons: Still Life of Lemons the forms of which correspond to that of a drawing of a black vase on the wall (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island).

The austere abstractions of Dance and Music were followed shortly afterwards by the fruits of his first visit to North Africa, a series of large scenes of Islamic life glowing with sensuous colour. They appear effortlessly spontaneous, and their simple outlines could be mistaken as genuinely naive. These were followed by a further advance towards abstract art in Open Window, Collioure (1914; private collection) in which vertical bands of green, gray, and pale blue that are the window shutters frame a plain black rectangle, an entirely opaque night sky. Composition: Yellow Curtain (1915; private collection) is too big to be its pendant, yet is, formally, its daytime equivalent.

In 1914, Matisse showed the influence of Cubism. In Mademoiselle Yvonne Landsberg (1914; Philadelphia Museum of Art) the negroid mask and expanding arcs scratched in the paint appear unconvincing. But Moroccans (1916; Museum of Modern Art, New York), though undoubtedly reflecting post-Cubist abstraction, is one of the most mysterious and powerful of his images. Its boldly silhouetted shapes anticipate the qualities of his own cut paper compositions of 20 years later.

As the war continued, Matisse in the isolation of his Paris studio painted a number of large canvases: sombre, noble images of the studio, with Paris glimpsed through the window; they recall in their scale and spatial quality some of the great canvases of Manet.

In a hotel room in Nice in 1919, Matisse painted a totally different kind of Artist and his Model (Collection of Dr and Mrs Harry Bakwin, New York). The artist, by the quality of his line and the tentative washes of colour, might be an elderly amateur faced with his first nude model. But ironically this naive gentleman is included in the picture; and the picture itself, despite its sketchy brushmarks, is taut and delicately precise in its spatial relationships. For another ten years, Matisse painted a sequence of such small genre scenes of the hedonism of sunlit Mediterranean hotels, in which the qualities of Impressionism or the intimate vision of his friend Bonnard were matched with an enigmatic simplicity.

In contrast, the Barnes murals were perhaps the most mannered inventions of Matisse's career. The flat shapes of the dancers, anticipating his later use of cut paper, leap into and out of the lunettes with a brittle vitality. Nevertheless, they point towards the painter's return to a more monumental imagery. Over the last 20 years of his long life, Matisse perfected his last, most consistent, mode of representation. He worked with thin, fluid paint, washing off unacceptable essays and starting afresh on the cleaned canvas, so preserving the vital quality of spontaneity. He drew with broad gestures, avoiding foreshortenings, and filling the canvas with grand arabesques which he charged with dazzling combinations of glowing colour. Though many of these canvases are small they have a monumental quality.

After the Second World War, Matisse began to work increasingly in cut paper. He had immense sheets of paper washed over with gouache colours and then cut out his shapes and stuck them together (for example, The Snail, 1953; Tate Gallery, London). He said: "Cutting into living colour reminds me of the sculptor's direct carving." Though he cut often trite vegetable shapes, he composed them into splendid harmonies that are a fitting climax to his career. As it was he continued experimenting with colour for the rest of his life. In the early 1950s he created a series of gouaches decoupees, including Blue Nude I, 1952; Blue Nude II, 1952; Blue Nude III, 1952; Blue Nude IV, 1952; Blue Nude Jumping Rope, 1952; Blue Nude with Green Stockings, 1952; Standing Nude, 1952. Art critics consider them to represent the ultimate type of abstract figure painting, and they are among the most popular and most often copied pictures in the history of art of the 20th century.

His last masterpiece was the Dominican chapel of Notre-Dame du Rosaire (1947-51) at Vence, a small spare space made large and noble by the subtle balance of simple elements: the deliberately schematic black outline drawings on the white tiled walls, illuminated by the abstract colours flooding exultantly through the windows.

Paintings by Henri Matisse hang in the best art museums across the world.

Source: We gratefully acknowledge the use of material in the above article from "A Biographical Dictionary of Artists" (1983), edited by Sir Lawrence Gowling.

• For more about Fauvist painting, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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