Henri Matisse was the most important French painter of the 20th century. The leader of Fauvism, Matisse was especially famous for his bold use of color.
Believe it or not, Henri Matisse wasn’t interested in art when he was young. In fact, he studied law in school and graduated to work in a legal office. As a hobby, he sat in on drawing classes. When he got sick with appendicitis, Matisse taught himself to paint. First by copying pictures then by decorating his grandparents’ house. Eventually, he gave up his legal career to become an art student. He had a lot of different art teachers. One taught him technical skills, another encouraged him to find his own “personality,” and his final teacher forced him to leave school and become a professional artist. Even then, Matisse continued to visit art classes where he could learn more and more about printmaking, painting, and sculpture.
Unlike other artists, Matisse wasn’t interested in acting or dressing like the avant-garde. Matisse was only interested in working hard. “I plunged head down into work,” he said later, “I hurried up in my work, pushed by I don’t know what, by a force which today I perceive as being foreign to my life as a normal man.” This work ethic affected his entire career.
After all this schooling, Matisse enjoyed an immediate success. The French Government bought one of his paintings! After that, the artist became braver and more experimental. He travelled and met other painters. He used more intense hues and created “a minor scandal” with his unusual colors.
He made friends with other modern artists. His art was included in their shows, but he didn’t make very much money. His first one-man show was a failure. His wife, Madame Matisse, oped a dress shop to help support her husband and their three children.
Inspired by a trip to the Mediterranean Sea, Henri enjoyed an artistic breakthrough. He painted quickly and creatively with brave combinations of color. He created two famous paintings in this style, Open Winter and Woman with the Hat (which was a portrait of his wife). The paintings were shown with work by similar artists. Because of their “violent” use of color, a critic of the show called the artists, “Wild Beasts” or “Les Fauves” in French.
In no time at all, Fauvism was recognized as a new art movement. Matisse was acknowledged as its leader. Gertrude Stein, a famous art collector, began to buy Matisse’s art. With her support, the artist showed his work in Paris, New York, Moscow, and Berlin.
Fauvism didn’t last long. The “Wild Beasts” went on to become expressionists and cubists among other things. Matisse continued to love pure, vibrant color. He used that color and his many traditional art skills to simplify his drawing and create dramatic, playful patterns. He created sculptures, stained glass windows, and sets for plays and opera. He published books of black and white etchings, admired for their simplicity. He also wrote a book called Jazz. It recorded the artist’s ideas about art and life. Matisse illustrated the book with colorful paper collages, a technique he called “drawing with scissors.” The book later inspired Matisse to create similar cut-outs the size of murals.
When Matisse grew old, he was sick and bedridden. Some artists might be sad to be stuck in bed. Not Matisse, he worked from bed by drawing with crayons attached to a very long pole. His final compositions are some of his most joyful, daring, and skillful works of art. Matisse died in 1954.
As an art teacher, I could not invent a more inspiring subject than Henri Matisse. He was a master artist who never lost his taste for learning, creation, or experimentation. His sampling of numerous art forms could inform any number of studio projects. Most unusually, Matisse wasn’t even that interested in art until he was in his twenties; This is a historic invitation to every reluctant art student: It’s never too late to start!
Matisse created too many of my favorite works of art for me to ever pick just one. That said, his portraits are an ongoing inspiration to me and his paintings tell me again and again not to take myself too seriously. Study the man!
Portrait of Matisse drawn by yours truly