A lawyer-turned artist, Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse was known as a prodigy of French art in the 20th century. He was also a sculptor, draughtsman, printmaker, and the leader of the Fauvist movement, which constituted a group of artists who were advocates of using colour to represent the emotional state. Well-known for his bold use of colour, surprisingly, he started off with monotonous and subtle colours and transitioned towards vivid and tradition-defying colours. As he moved places, his art transformed from a colourful painting to a minimalistic composed one.
Henri Matisse grew up in Bohain, located in Northern France and pursued law for a few years before stumbling upon painting through a paint-set given by his mother. Deeply enjoying the experience, he went back to Paris in the early 1890s to apply to one of the best art schools in Paris at the time. After being refused a place in the school, and securing a spot in one of the studios, he tried to find solace within the enclosed work styles and rules. His work included landscapes and still life paintings, in the beginning, taking inspiration from traditional and realistic art.
Following the 19th-century art movement – Impressionism, which utilizes a thoughtful, and imaginative style that was different from the realistic and conservative pieces of the time, Matisse got inspired by Pissarro, Monet, and Moreau and produced a painting that included his wife, Camille arranging things on a dining table. The angles of light falling on the table, the shadows behind the chair, and the details presented are the most striking features of this painting. The final presentation painting received immense criticism, but he could not ignore his artist instincts and continued in his style.
When Matisse discovered the beauty of nature in Corsica, his painting style transformed into a palette of colour and light. Since he painted of free will and did not care about the norms of the period, the society was not too pleased, and he did not receive appreciation or interest. Due to getting trapped in the Humbert Affair, a major financial scandal of the period, Matisse and his family had to move back to Bohain.
Matisse then painted the “Studio Under the Eaves” in 1903, which depicts his highly disturbed emotional state at the time due to criticism in the outside world. This dreamy painting contrasts with the smaller space consisting of a private room with fascinating shadows and light rays, a view from the window, and a canvas set-up.
In 1903, Matisse and his family moved back to Paris, with Matisse trying to earn a living through his still-life conventional paintings. With that not working out, he started painting his children, who were his inspiration. 1904 saw him travelling to the South to spend time with Paul Signac, a Neo-Impressionist painter. This inspired him to add a wide range of hues and colours onto his canvases, beginning with his first work of that style, “Luxe, Calm et Volupté”.
The optical theory concept employed in Neo-impressionism allows the formation of light patterns and precise brush strokes in comparison to Impressionism which also employs the same colours but is a little more rough and messy. This structure did not comply with Matisse’s ideas as he sought more fluidity and freedom while painting, so he set off to Collioure, a quaint and less-crowded fishing village.
Matisse’s First Breakthrough
He started painting differently in collaboration with Andre Derain, and just in two months, they produced a large amount of work. Their paintings had colours that were not present visibly in nature. This contrasted enormously with the well-known and old Renaissance style of painting which is a realistic, harmonious, and composed form of art. Coming back to Paris in 1905, Matisse chose three paintings to be hung up in the Salon d’Automne, an avant-garde salon.
One of the paintings, “The Woman with a Hat,” was of his wife, Amelie, occupied with different colours representing the new life she gave him. To look at the world through a different lens was not appreciated in that conservative period. So, the spectators could not tolerate the innovative use of colour and new representation of objects and people as they felt that it violated the Renaissance period’s ideas on beauty, perfection, and clarity.
Not earning approval from the public for the second time in a row, Derain and Matisse were called ‘Fauves’. Matisse did not give up. He further developed his paintings to convey a message to the public who rejected his work through the use of colours and features.
“Colour was not given to us in order that we should imitate Nature. It was given to us so that we can express our emotions.” — Henri Matisse
Matisse revolutionized the start of Modern painting and inspired hundreds of artists to experiment with colour. It can be understood that he uses basic colours like white and black to bring a balance to bright colours and make the painting look unified.
“The Red Studio”, one of Matisse’s most celebrated paintings, is hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City after gaining appreciation from several art enthusiasts in America. Dr Barnes, an American art collector, invited him to make a large mural, stretching across three alcoves for his new museum. This piece is Matisse’s largest painting in which dancers are sketched and painted against three colours. After the painting was completed, Barnes hid it from the public’s eye, and Matisse never got to see it again.
Matisse’s Final Work
After being diagnosed with cancer, Matisse retired to a house in Vence where he produced one of his most intense works, which renowned him as the greatest living painter. It was after this that he came up with an even more creative idea – paper cutout. Henri Matisse’s “Icarus” depicts a story from Greek Mythology. The cutouts were regarded as childish by some, but when attempted by themselves, they did not look even close to the outstanding result Matisse’s had.
Matisse’s last design was Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence that has its own unique glass pattern and plan with foliage and leaves. He says that he has been searching for a sense of calmness and light in his life which is why he uses colour and life-filled patterns in his work.
The Musée Matisse has most of Matisse’s work from the beginning till his last few paintings. From the cartoon Miffy to famous fashion designs to the simple logos that are loved by the world, Matisse is still present in today’s design inspirations. Matisse’s paintings can seem dull in comparison to detailed Ancient paintings of beautiful people, yet they are so full of life and represent realistic emotions. The world is moving towards a more simplistic and expressive design agenda.
- Lepine, A. 2013. Interior view of Chapel. [Photograph].
- Henri Matisse Biography. [online]. Available at: Henri Matisse: 100 Famous Paintings Analysis, Complete Works, & Bio [Accessed 08 July 2021].
- Henri Matisse. [online]. Available at: Henri Matisse – Wikipedia [Accessed 08 July 2021].
- Ian Layugan. (2020). BBC’s Becoming Matisse. [YouTube video]. Available at: BBC’s Becoming Matisse – YouTube [Accessed 09 July 2021].
- Mikos. (2013). Henri Matisse: A Master of the Modern Era. Documentary for Educational Purposes only. [YouTube video]. Available at: Henri Matisse: A Master of the Modern Era. Documentary for educational purposes only – YouTube [Accessed 08 July 2021].