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Henri Matisse: the Artist Who Revolutionized Color

The Red Studio by Henri Matisse, revolutionized 20th-century art with his use of color.
Henri Matisse, The Red Studio (L’Atelier Rouge), 1911. The Museum of Modern Art, New York City

By Charlotte Lydia Stace

French artist Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954) was best known for his use of color and his originality. Although recognized first and foremost for his work as a painter, he also worked as a printmaker and sculptor. One of the leaders of Fauvism, he is regarded as one of the most revolutionary visual artists of the twentieth century. His work has been highly influential in the field of modern art and has continued to inspire generations long after his death. 

Read on to find out more about Henri Matisse’s art, life, and legacy. 

Biography of Henri Matisse

Let’s start by answering the question, ‘Who was Henri Matisse?’ Not only was he one of France’s most renowned artists with a career spanning six decades, but he was also the leader of the Fauvist movement. He devoted much of his career to the experimentation of color and imbued his work with distinct Mediterranean vigor. So, where did it all start? Let’s explore. 

Early life

Henri Matise was born in 1869 in the small industrial town of Bohain-en-Vermandois in northern France. He worked as a legal clerk and later studied for a law degree in Paris between 1887 to 1889 and did not show interest in art until he was 20 years old when, back to his hometown to take up a position in a law office, he began taking drawing classes. Recovering from a short illness, he started devoting much more time and attention to creating art. From this moment on, his talent emerged he returned to Paris to pursue formal artistic training to further develop his skills. 

Training and success

Whilst attending the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts, Matisse learned the traditional “academic way” of creating art. However, he was also exposed to the recent Post-Impressionist work of artists like Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh. He began experimenting with new methods and approaches to producing art and exhibited his work at various galleries around Paris. 

After attracting much attention for his avant-garde approach to creating art, he traveled to the south of France and began creating works that expressed light in new ways. For instance, his works Luxe, calme et volupté (1904-05) and Open Window and Woman with a Hat (1905) are examples of his exploration of light and color. He also exhibited these works, which became a huge success. Art critics began referring to artists that played with light and color like Matisse as ìFauves meaning “wild beasts” and their style, often associated with Expressionism by reason of its use of bold colors and spontaneous brushwork, became known as ‘Fauvism’. Matisse traveled to Italy, Germany, Spain, and Morocco for inspiration, looking for new ways to play with bright colors and light. 

Throughout his career he was well-recognized and art collectors of the caliber of Gertrude Stein bought much of his work. He continued to travel, and eventually moved to Nice with his family where he lived and worked until his death. He continued to work with color and even experimented with elements of Cubism, which he picked up from his close friend Pablo Picasso.  

Later years and death  

Henri Matisse the artist became a well-known and celebrated figure, both within France and the rest of the world. His contribution to Fauvism earned him much recognition and success throughout his career and many high-profile commissions in his later years. After being diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 1941, he was left frequently bedbound and so worked from his home for the remaining years of his life. He died in 1954, at the age of 84, in Nice and was buried nearby.

Henri Matisse’s Famous Paintings

Henri Matisse’s paintings have inspired artists for generations. His work is the epitome of Fauvism and was highly influential in avant-garde circles in the early to mid 20th century. Here are some of his most famous pieces. 

Joy of Life (1905)

Joy of Life by artist Henri Matisse (1905)
Henri Matisse, Joy of Life, 1905. Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

Henri Matisse’s Fauvist approach is apparent in Joy of Life (1905). Depicting an Arcadian landscape filled with colored forests, meadows, sea, and sky and populated by nude figures, the artwork is emblematic of how Mattisse used color to express emotions and his views of nature. Whilst living in Paris, the artist spent many summers in the south of France sketching landscapes and developing the ideas into larger compositions upon his return.

Dance (1910)

Dance (II), one of the most famous paintings of Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse, Dance, 1910, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

A milestone in the development of modern painting, Dance (1910) was made at the request of Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin, who left this large decorative panel to the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Matisse’s figures are drawn loosely in vibrant colors, with almost no interior definition, giving them the impression of light-hearted, joyous entities dancing across the canvas. By reason of its rhythmical succession of dancing nudes, the painting has often been compared to Igor Stravinsky’s musical work The Rite of Spring.

Goldfish (1912)

Goldfish by Henri Matisse, 1912. The fish was a symbol of peace and tranquility for the artist
Henri Matisse, Goldfish, 1912, Pushkin Museum of Art, Moscow

From around 1912, goldfish became a recurring subject in Henri Matisse’s artwork. The fish immediately attract our attention due to their bright color. The orange contrasts with the pinks and greens that surround the fishbowl and the background. Fauvists favored this contrasting coloring technique as it draws the attention of the viewer to what they wanted to express. For the artist, goldfish represented peace and tranquillity, something which he found when traveling across Europe and North Africa.

Jazz (1947)

The complete set of 20 cut-out prints that compose Jazz by Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse, Jazz (the complete set of 20 pochoirs in colors, on Arches paper), 1947, The Met Museum, New York.

Aside from his contributions to painting and sculpture, Matisse produced several artists’ books. He made the majority of these after battling intestinal cancer that left him restricted to the confines of his home. The above image shows the 20 cut-out prints he created to illustrate his groundbreaking book Jazz (1947), whose name relates to the experimental and improvisational nature of jazz music. The book’s dominant themes center around the circus and theater.

Henri Matisse, Icarus (from the book, Jazz), 1947.
Henri Matisse, Icarus (from the book, Jazz), 1947, The Met Museum, New York. 

In particular, one image that stands out is Icarus (1947). Here, the mythological figure is depicted in a simplified form. The figure appears to be floating against a blue nighttime sky. These flat, abstracted forms and large areas of pure color represented a shift for the artist’s later work with color, prints, and shapes. 

Snail (1953)

The Snail, an example of collage work by Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953. Tate Gallery, London.

During his time recovering from cancer, Henri Matisse began experimenting with collage works, known as ‘gouaches découpées’. He made these pieces by using cut-outs from paper that had been painted with gouache – a water-soluble paint that, unlike watercolor, is opaque. The cut-out shapes were stuck down onto a background by one of his assistants, following his instruction. In Snail (1953), he used colored shapes in the center of the work to represent the spiral pattern of a snail’s shell. The vibrant colors echo Matisse’s commitment to Fauvism. 

Legacy of Henri Matisse

Although only a selection of Henri Matisse’s artworks is shown here, by the end of his career the artist had produced countless pieces, from paintings to sculptures. He is remembered as one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, both in France and also around the world, and is a major figure of contemporary art history.

Relevant sources

Keep reading on the Artland Magazine
Learn about Henri Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire in ‘From Matisse to Rothko: Artist-Designed Chapels. A Religious Experience’
Discover how Odalisque in Red Trousers by Matisse was stolen and switched with a fake with no one noticing in ‘The Art of Forgery – Art Forgers Who Duped The World’

Keep reading on other websites
How to paint happiness: a masterclass from Matisse

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