The Artist Birthday Series

Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse: painter, sculptor, printmaker

Henri Matisse (31 December 1869 – 3 November 1954) was a revolutionary and influential artist of the early 20th century, best known for the expressive color and form of his Fauvist style.

My choice of colors does not rest on any scientific theory; it is based on observation, on sensitivity, on felt experience.” —Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse was born December 31, 1869, in Le Cateau in northern France. Over a six-decade career he worked in all media, from painting to sculpture to printmaking. Although his subjects were traditional—nudes, figures in landscapes, portraits, interior views—his revolutionary use of brilliant color and exaggerated form to express emotion made him one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

matisse at work

Henri Matisse was born on December 31, 1869, and was raised in the small industrial town of Bohain-en-Vermandois in northern France. His family worked in the grain business. As a young man Matisse worked as a legal clerk and then studied for a law degree in Paris in 1887-89. Returning to a position in a law office in the town of Saint-Quentin, he began taking a drawing class in the mornings before he went to work. When he was 21, Matisse began painting while recuperating from an illness, and his vocation as an artist was confirmed.

In 1891 Matisse moved to Paris for artistic training. He took instruction from famous, older artists at well-known schools such as the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts. These schools taught according to the “academic method,” which required working from live models and copying the works of Old Masters, but Matisse was also exposed to the recent Post-Impressionist work of Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh while living in Paris.

Matisse began to show his work in large group exhibitions in Paris in the mid-1890s, including the traditional Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and his work received some favorable attention. He traveled to London and to Corsica, and in 1898 he married Amélie Parayre, with whom he would have three children.

Matisse and his wife Amélie, 1913
Matisse and his wife Amélie, 1913

By the turn of the 20th century, the young artist had come under the more progressive influence of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who painted in a “Pointillist” style with small dots of color rather than full brushstrokes. Matisse stopped exhibiting at the official Salon and began submitting his art to the more progressive Salon des Indépendants in 1901. In 1904 he had his first one-man exhibition at the gallery of dealer Ambroise Vollard.

"Dishes And Fruit," 1901
“Dishes And Fruit,” 1901

Matisse had a major creative breakthrough in the years 1904-05. A visit to Saint-Tropez in southern France inspired him to paint bright, light-dappled canvases such as Luxe, calme et volupté (1904-05), and a summer in the Mediterranean village of Collioure produced his major works Open Window and Woman with a Hat in 1905. He exhibited both paintings in the 1905 Salon d’Automne exhibition in Paris. In a review of the show, a contemporary art critic mentioned the bold, distorted images painted by certain artists he nicknamed “fauves,” or “wild beasts.”

"Luxe, calme et voluptè (Luxury, Calm and Pleasure)," 1904
“Luxe, calme et voluptè (Luxury, Calm and Pleasure),” 1904-05
“Open Window,” 1905
“Woman With A Hat,” 1905

Painting in the style that came to be known as Fauvism, Matisse continued to emphasize the emotional power of sinuous lines, strong brushwork and acid-bright colors in works such as The Joy of Life, a large composition of female nudes in a landscape. Like much of Matisse’s mature work, this scene captured a mood rather than merely trying to depict the world realistically.

"The Joy Of Life," 1905
“The Joy Of Life,” 1905

Between 1905 and 1906, Matisse painted four different copies of the same scene in “The Joy of Life,” (translated from the original French, “Le Bonheur de Vivre“). Two of the copies are at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, one is at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and one is at the Museum of Copenhagen. The copy at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has maintained a vibrant yellow pigment that fills in the spaces between the reclining nudes in the middle the masterpiece. But a copy at the Barnes Foundation is gradually but steadily reacting with light and air and fading to a dull ivory color.

The copy of Matisse's "The Joy Of Life" at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has been steadily losing its vibrancy due to the chemistry of the paints the artist used.
The copy of Matisse’s “The Joy Of Life” at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has been steadily losing its vibrancy due to the chemistry of the paints the artist used.

Researchers took samples from one of the copies at the Barnes Foundation. “If we want to study the full paint layer, we take a scalpel and remove a tiny sample of the painting” that is equivalent to the size of a period at the end of a sentence of a Times Roman 10-point font, said one of the scientists involved, Jennifer Mass. The research found that when that top layer was exposed to air, the water-resistant, bright-yellow cadmium sulfide Matisse (and many other artists at the time) had used, oxidizes into cadmium sulfate. The binder, an oil paint used to make the paint stick to the canvas, can degrade to beige cadmium carbonate and cadmium oxalate. As for why one copy was not fading, Mass suggests Matisse most likely had substituted another pigment rather than cadmium yellow.

Research on, and conservation of, "The Joy Of Life," was led by Jennifer Mass, a senior scientist at the Winterthur museum in Delaware who was enlisted by the Barnes Foundation.
Research on, and conservation of, “The Joy Of Life,” was led by Jennifer Mass, a senior scientist at the Winterthur museum in Delaware who was enlisted by the Barnes Foundation.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Matisse also made sculptures and drawings that were sometimes related to his paintings, always repeating and simplifying his forms to their essence.

After finding his own style, Matisse enjoyed a greater degree of success. He was able to travel to Italy, Germany, Spain and North Africa for inspiration. He bought a large studio in a suburb of Paris and signed a contract with the prestigious art dealers of Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. His art was purchased by prominent collectors such as Gertrude Stein in Paris and the Russian businessman Sergei I. Shchukin, who commissioned Matisse’s important pair of paintings Dance I and Music in 1909-10.

“Dance 1,” 1910
“Music,” 1910

In his works of the 1910s and 1920s, Matisse continued to delight and surprise his viewers with his signature elements of saturated colors, flattened pictorial space, limited detail and strong outlines. Some works, like The Piano Lesson (1916), explored the structures and geometry of Cubism, the movement pioneered by Matisse’s lifelong rival Pablo Picasso. Yet despite his radical approach to color and form, Matisse’s subjects were often traditional: scenes of his own studio (including The Red Studio of 1911), portraits of friends and family, arrangements of figures in rooms or landscapes.

“The Piano Lesson,” 1916
“The Red Studio,” 1911

In 1917 Matisse began spending winters on the Mediterranean, and in 1921 he moved to the city of Nice on the French Riviera. From 1918-30, he most frequently painted female nudes in carefully staged settings within his studio, making use of warm lighting and patterned backgrounds. He also worked extensively in printmaking during these years.

“Seated Woman, Back Turned to the Open Window,” 1922
“Interior At Nice,” 1919

The first scholarly book about Matisse was published in 1920, marking his importance in the history of modern art as it was still taking place.

"Woman Seated on an Armchair, Open Robe," 1920
“Woman Seated on an Armchair, Open Robe,” 1920

In his later career, Matisse received several major commissions, such as a mural for the art gallery of collector Dr. Albert Barnes of Pennsylvania, titled Dance II, in 1931-33. He also drew book illustrations for a series of limited-edition poetry collections.

“The Dance II,” 1933 – at the wonderful Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA
Detail from “The Dance II,” 1933

Matisse was diagnosed with duodonal cancer in 1941, and after surgery that same year, he was often bedridden. However, he continued to work from a bed in his studio. When necessary, he would draw with a pencil or charcoal attached to the end of a long pole that enabled him to reach the paper or canvas.

His late work was just as experimental and vibrant as his earlier artistic breakthroughs had been. It included his 1947 book Jazz, which placed his own thoughts on life and art side by side with lively images of colored paper cutouts.

This project led him to devising works that were cutouts on their own, most notably several series of expressively shaped human figures cut from bright blue paper and pasted to wall-size background sheets (such as Swimming Pool, 1952).

“Swimming Pool,” now located at the New York Museum Of Modern Art
One of Matisse’s most well known images, “Blue Nude (I),” from 1952.

In one of his final projects, Matisse created an entire program of decorations for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence (1948-51), a town near Nice, designing stained-glass windows, murals, furnishings, and even sacred vestments for the church’s priests.

Henri Matisse suffered a massive heart attack and died on November 3, 1954, at the age of 84, in Nice. By his side were his daughter Margarite, and his longtime model, muse, friend, personal assistant and eventual caretaker, the painter Lydia Delectorskaya.

Marguerite Mattise, the artist’s daughter, speaks with Queen Elizabeth II, in London, 1966
Lydia Delectorskaya
Lydia Delectorskaya and Henri Matisse


Henri Matisse was buried at the Monastère et Cimetière de Cimiez, in Nice, France.

The artist’s sons, Pierre Matisse (L) and Jean Matisse (R), walk beside their mother Amélie at the funeral of the great artist
The funeral procession of Henri Matisse, Monastère et Cimetière de Cimiez, Nice, France

Edited from:

Barnes Foundation Matisse painting undergoes analysis to explore color changes

Henri Matisse

Digital collage portrait by TMLipp
Created for The Artist Birthday Series
December 31, 2016
(click image for full resolution)


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