Henri Matisse (1869-1954) Art History

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

Seldom is it possible for us to be living so close to the time of such a brilliant and revered artist as we have with Henri Emile Benoit Matisse.  Born in Le Cateau-Cambresis in northern France on December 31, 1869, he was the son of a middle-class family.  He grew up with a strong like of poetry, and in later years he credited this as having had a huge influence on his work.

As a young man Matisse studied law with the expectation of becoming a lawyer, but in 1890 during recovery from appendicitis he became interested in painting.  From that time, Matisse never looked back.  He began his career, as do many artists, with studies of the great masters.  Through this line of study he adopted a realistic, academically conservative style.  It was not until his investigation into contemporary works that his experimentation and personal style began to establish his reputation as a rebellious rule bender.

Regarded as one of the great influential figures in 20th century art, Matisse became known as a master of the use of color and form to convey emotional expressionism—so much so that at age 40 he was given credit for being the ringleader of the Fauvism movement.  Matisse and Picasso, who maintained a “gentle rivalry,” were two of the most influential artists of the 20th century.  Matisse made hundreds of drawings and did book illustrations, all in his exquisite arabesque line style and his extraordinary sense of color.

Matisse could be said to have been a real patriot of France.  When WWII raged, Matisse could have left and was urged to leave France.  At this time his career, his marriage and the fate of his works on display in Russia and occupied France were in shambles.  He chose not to do so, stating that if all talented Frenchmen left France, the country would be poor.  Although Matisse did remain in France, he did have to move for his personal safety.

Matisse was very successful during his career, but in what he termed “his second life,” the last 14 years of his life.  This “rebirth” was brought about by healing from an operation that would have killed most men his age.  When his strength came back, there was a level of determination and drive he had not known in decades.  He and assistants created large-scale works of paper (cut paper collages) that he called “painting with scissors.” He explained these cutouts as contour drawings that were done in solid form, not lines filled with color.  This suited him because he asserted that line and color competed with one another.  At the same time he worked creating black and white illustrations for several books.

We often hear that the lives of really creative people are compromised by the energy they expend to create their art.  This could be said of Matisse, as he was not able to carry into his family relationships the success he had achieved with his art.  A son, Pierre, was said to have been part of this dysfunction.  However, their relationship was far deeper and more sincere than Matisse had been given credit for.  After his death, over 800 letters were found, many as long as 21 pages – all to Pierre.  It was discovered that the son had been Matisse’s most trusted ally and confidant.

So many examples of Matisse’s work are viewable.  Posters and prints of hundreds of his drawings, paper cutouts, paintings and drawings are available, but for the real impact of his work, seeing it “live” is like no other experience.  The line, the color, the form…they work to create a strong magnetism between the viewer and the art.  If ever you are given the chance, do not pass up the opportunity to see a Matisse in person.