Henri Matisse

Born 1869
Hometown Le Cateau-Cambrésis, France

The remarkable career of Henri Matisse, one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, whose stylistic innovations (along with those of Pablo Picasso) fundamentally altered the course of modern art and affected the art of several generations of younger painters, spanned almost six and a half decades. His vast oeuvre encompassed painting, drawing, sculpture, graphic arts (as diverse as etchings, linocuts, lithographs, and aquatints), paper cutouts, and book illustration. His varied subjects comprised landscape, still life, portraiture, domestic and studio interiors, and particularly focused on the female figure.


Matisse created brilliantly colored canvases structured by color applied in a variety of brushwork, ranging from thick impasto to flat areas of pure pigment, sometimes accompanied by a sinuous, arabesque-like line. Paintings such as Woman with a Hat (1905), when exhibited at the 1905 Salon d’Automne in Paris, gave rise to the the first of the avant-garde movements (fall 1905–7), named “Fauvism” (from the French word fauves or “wild beasts”) by a contemporary art critic, referring to its use of arbitrary combinations of bright colors and energetic brushwork to structure the composition. During his brief Fauvist period, Matisse produced a significant number of remarkable canvases, such as the portrait of Madame Matisse, called The Green Line (1905) and Bonheur de vivre (1905–6).


Subsequently, Matisse’s career can be divided into several periods that changed stylistically, but his underlying aim always remained the same: to discover “the essential character of things” and to produce an art “of balance, purity, and serenity,” as he himself put it in his “Notes of a Painter” in 1908. The years 1908–13 were focused on art and decoration, producing several large canvases such as studio interiors, exemplified by The Red Studio (1911) and a group of spectacularly colored Moroccan pictures. These were followed by four years (1913–17) of experimentation and discourse with the Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris. The resulting compositions were much more austere, almost geometrically structured and at times close to abstraction. In 1932, in preparation for The Dance, a mural for Dr. Albert Barnes, Matisse began using a new technique—that of building up the composition from cutout shapes of previously colored paper. From 1940 onward, the paper cutouts became Matisse’s favored exploratory medium and, until the end of his life, the dominant medium of expression.


Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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