A Biography of Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse had only one purpose as an artist; and that was to make the viewer feel good. His aim was to create paintings that gave people pleasure, that made them feel at home; kind of like the comforter you can’t part with, the one that’s thinning and frayed, but you still love it. It soothes you, it makes you happy in a way that a replacement just couldn’t do; it’s simply one of the things that makes your home; home. That was Matisse’s greatest desire, to create a feeling of home, to just make us feel good. I think he got what he wanted.

Born in 1869, at Le Cateau-Cambresis in the north of France, Henri spent his childhood helping out at his parent’s general store. His youth was filled with re-stocking and selling items like grain, seeds, and things for the home. As he got older, his father gave him an ultimatum; the family business or law school. Matisse chose law school, and when he returned from his studies in Paris he began his career working as a clerk in a law office.

That career would soon end, as one year later an attack of appendicitis and the surgery that accompanied it left him housebound. It was during this time that his mother brought him home a gift that was meant to ease his boredom; that gift was a set of paints, and the young man who had never shown an interest in art fell in love with painting. At the age of twenty-one an artist was born.

Matisse continued to work at the law office, but he’d found new focus. Early mornings were consumed with art classes taken before work; days in the office found him doodling flowers (in paint) on legal documents while working; he may not have filed them, but he did supply a bit of beauty to their pages.

In 1891, against his parent’s wishes, Matisse again left home for Paris and an education; art school. The Ecole des Beaux-Arts was one of the most famous art schools in Paris. His studies were difficult, most artists begin dabbling with paints as children, but Matisse was in his twenties, and he had an awful lot of catching up to do. His first teacher mercilessly told him he’d never learn to draw, but he worked hard, and he proved her wrong.

While in school, Henri focused on painting landscapes and still life. His late start left him with many things to learn, particularly the basics; figure drawing, perspective, and composition. Unfortunately, Matisse didn’t embrace tradition and he failed tests. He also alienated his instructors, all but one, Gustave Moreau. Moreau believed in Henri even when others didn’t. He encouraged him, and he encouraged the creativity that he knew existed; he wanted him to not only use his imagination but to expand it to its fullest.

In 1898, Matisse’s style of painting changed completely when his friend and fellow painter, John Peter Russell introduced him to impressionism. Matisse was fascinated by the paintings of Gauguin, and he was intrigued by the works of a yet unknown artist by the name of Vincent van Gogh. His discovery opened the door into a whole new world, and that world was filled with color, bright vivid colors.

His newfound interest in impressionism found him leaving art school and venturing out to find himself as an artist; it also found him reworking prior paintings that had already been completed. The Dinner Table found itself sporting new splashes of color; its flowers were brighter; its fruit was more desirable, and the glassware shimmered with light. Henri’s experimentation, however, didn’t pay the bills, and his wife Amelie stepped up to help the family. She raised their two sons, modeled for her husband, and worked at the local milliner. Times were tough, and the family got through those times together. It is said that Matisse often admitted that during their time of poverty he was tempted to eat the fruit he used for models in his still life paintings, and who knows? Some of it looks quite tasty………… maybe he wasn’t kidding!

Early in the twentieth century artists began to focus on color in order to communicate their feelings; they began to use color in a way that conveyed more than just the mood of the painting; color became an emotional force. Rather than portray a scene in its natural state, Fauvism thrived on the “unnatural.” The mundane and boring landscape or still life morphed into something unreal and completely real all at the same time by the artist’s use of daring, vibrant color. The group of artists who are known for their use of color are known as the Fauves (Wild Beasts), and they include Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Derain.

Although Matisse loved the post-impressionistic artwork of painters such as Vincent van Gogh, Fauvism was totally different in its methods. Perception changed, colors were no longer mixed, and brushstrokes strove to be seen……….. not hidden. The art itself thrived on the spontaneity of the artist, and the artists thrived in artistic expression.

Matisse turned his apartment into a studio, a stage; it was a set of patterns and colors. He used one simple room and a variety of props over and over again. Look closely at his paintings; how many include a bird cage……… a Chinese vase……… a pewter mug, or the comfy chair? How many times do you see the dog, a Schnauzer named Raoudi appear in a painting? He belonged to Matisse and was a cherished pet. Matisse saw his use of props in the same way a director would view the actors he works with; the props were Henri’s actors; they could play different parts and yet never change at all.

Before long, Matisse became bored with Fauve. He wanted to improve his art, to convey new feelings; he wanted to be different. The choice of using calmer colors in contrast to the vivid hues he’d once loved was a conscious one. He also began using thinner, more decorative lines for decoration; small changes that would draw the attention of the viewer, changes so small that many may not have noticed the transition. Matisse’s bold, bright canvases became subtly muted and soothing, almost dreamy; they were meant to comfort rather than invigorate.

In the early 1900’s, Matisse took a trip to Algeria, a trip that would yet again influence and change his style of painting. His travels through North Africa found him fascinated with the local markets and the wares they sold. He spent his time there studying patterns; the intricate patterns woven into both clothing and carpets, and he brought those studies home with him. Once home, he shared them; he shared them with the world.

Harmony in Red
was painted in 1908, and bears a striking resemblance to The Dinner Table. It was purchased by Sergei Shchukin, who also commissioned Matisse to paint a much larger painting for a hallway in his home. That painting would become one of Matisse’s most famous; it was titled “Dance.”

Matisse’s individuality came full circle with the completion of the “Dance.” Nothing about this painting reflects classical tradition. Its figures are simple silhouettes, perspective is non-existent, and there is nothing about his choice in colors that invokes reality. Ironically, those choices are the things that give this painting life; its stunning blues and earthy greens combined with shades of red are meant to symbolize joy, and the dancers themselves seem to be alive.

Henri Matisse lived to be 84 years old. Later in life, he may have found it harder to get around, but he never gave up his art. My introduction to Matisse’s work came in the form of collage, the medium he used when standing at an easel for hours had become all but impossible. Matisse described collage as the ability to use scissors for drawing and color to sculpt, and he could do it sitting down. Let’s face it, a true artist can paint with anything, and if you can’t paint on paper; you can paint with it.