Henri Matisse Biography – French Painter, Sculptor, Fauvism, Art History, Legacy

Henri Matisse biography
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Henri Matisse. Edward Steichen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Henri Matisse Biography and Legacy

Henri Matisse was a French painter, sculptor, draughtsman, and printmaker, who is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

Matisse, along with Pablo Picasso, is regarded as one of the artists who revolutionized the field of visual arts in the opening decades of the 20th century.

He was known for his use of expressive colors and original draughtsmanship, making him a leading figure in modern art.

Early Life and Education

Henri Matisse was born on 31st December 1869 in Le Cateau-Cambresis, a commune in the Nord department in northern France.

Matisse was the oldest son of a wealthy grain merchant and grew up in Bohain-en-Vermandois, a commune in the department of Aisne in Hauts-de-France.

In 1887, Matisse, aged 18, went to Paris in order to study law. After qualifying, he began working as a court administrator in his hometown.

In 1889, while recuperating after suffering from an attack of appendicitis, his mother brought him some art supplies. This was when he first began to paint.

Matisse later described the event as discovering a kind of paradise, after which he decided to become an artist. His decision disappointed his father, who did not approve of his son’s choice of career.

But Matisse stood strong and was adamant to act on his decision. And so in 1891, aged 22, he returned to Paris and enrolled at the Academie Julian, a private art school for painting and sculpture.

Life as an Art Student

At the art school, Henri Matisse became a student of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a French academic painter, and Gustave Moreau, a major figure in the French Symbolist Movement.

Matisse began by painting landscapes and still lifes in a traditional style, eventually becoming quite good at it.

He was introduced to and inspired by the works of great artists such as Nicolas Poussin, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, and Edouard Manet. He was also greatly influenced by Japanese art.

Matisse admired Chardin to such an extent that as a student he made copies of four of Chardin’s paintings.

Change in Painting Style

In 1896, Henri Matisse visited John Russell, an Australian impressionist painter, on the French island of Belle Isle.

Russell introduced Matisse to the Impressionist art movement and to the work of the great Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. Russell also explained color theory to him.

This meeting with Russell had a profound impact on Matisse, provoking him to completely change his style of painting. He abandoned his dull, earth-colored palette and began to use bright, expressive, and vibrant colors instead.

The same year, Matisse exhibited five of his paintings in the salon of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Out of the five paintings, two were bought by the state.


In 1898, Henri Matisse, aged 29, married Amelie Parayre.

The couple raised their two sons, Jean and Pierre, along with Marguerite, the daughter Matisse had with a model named Caroline Joblau.

Both Amelie and Marguerite often served as models for Matisse.

Inspiration from Other Artists

In 1898, Henri Matisse went to London at the suggestion of Danish-French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, in order to study the paintings of the English Romantic painter William Turner.

After a brief trip to Corsica, Matisse returned to Paris in early 1899 and began working beside Albert Marquet, a French painter associated with the Fauvist movement. Matisse and Marquet became lifelong friends.

During this time, Matisse also met other artists such as Jean Puy and Andre Derain, whose works he greatly admired. He studied the works of all the artists he admired with deep interest and even went into debt purchasing their artworks.

Matisse owned a drawing by Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Cezanne’s Three Bathers, which he displayed in his home. Cezanne’s sense of pictorial structure and color inspired him.

Early Artworks

In Matisse’s early paintings, roughly from 1898 to 1901, he frequently uses the Divisionist technique he adopted after reading an essay by Paul Signac.

Divisionism was a style in Neo-Impressionist painting defined by the separation of colors into individual dots or patches which interacted optically.

Matisse’s paintings of 1902-1903 are much more somber, revealing a preoccupation with form.

After making his first attempt at sculpting by copying a work of the French Romantic sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye, Matisse began working at a sculpture with clay, eventually finishing The Slave in 1903.

The Founder of Fauvism

Henri Matisse, along with Andre Derain, co-founded the Fauvist movement around 1900. The two artists became leaders and pioneers of a new style of painting that emphasized strong and expressive colors over realistic and representational ones used by the Impressionists.

In 1904, Matisse held his first-ever solo exhibition at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, a French art dealer regarded as one of the most important dealers in contemporary French art at the beginning of the 20th century.

The exhibition was not a success. But Matisse was not in the least deterred by its failure. He continued to paint in the fauvist style and his fondness for bright expressive colors became more and more pronounced.

The same year, Matisse painted Luxe, Calme et Volupte (Luxury, Calm and Pleasure), his most important work which is considered the starting point of Fauvism. The painting is a vibrant and dynamic work in the Neo-Impressionist style.

Criticism Faced by Matisse

In 1905, Henri Matisse and a group of artists known as ‘Fauves’ held an exhibition at the Salon d’Automne.

Matisse displayed two of his paintings, Woman with the Hat and Open Window.

The exhibition garnered mostly negative attention, with Matisse’s Woman with the Hat receiving harsh criticism from the critics. But in spite of this criticism, the painting was purchased by American art collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein.

The sale of his painting motivated Matisse to carry on in the direction he intended to go.

During this period, most of Matisse’s work received a lot of criticism, making it very difficult for him to earn money through his art and provide for his family.

Decline of Fauvism

The Fauvist movement lasted only for a few years, roughly from 1904-1908, having a total of just three exhibitions.

After 1906, the movement went into decline. But this did not affect Matisse’s career, as many of his finest works were yet to be created.

By then, Matisse had become an active part of a gathering of artistic talent in Montparnasse. Although he did not exactly fit in with the crowd due to his conservative appearance and bourgeois background and work habits, he still continued to absorb new styles and influences.

Influence of African Art

In 1906, Henri Matisse traveled to Algeria, where he carefully studied African art and Primitivism, which is a mode of aesthetic idealization that either emulates or aspires to recreate the primitive experience.

In 1910, Matisse also visited an exhibition of Islamic art in Munich, which led him to spend two months in Spain studying Moorish art.

In 1912, he visited Tangier, Morocco, and stayed there for the next seven months. While working in Tangier, he made several changes to his style, such as an increase in the use of the color black.

The influence of African art on Matisse’s subsequent works was obvious. He displayed a new boldness in the use of intense, unmodulated colors, such as in The Red Studio painting.

Matisse’s Patrons

In the first decade of the 20th century, the American art collector Gertrude Stein and her brothers, Michael and Leo Stein, were the main supporters of Matisse’s paintings.

Later on, Gertrude Stein’s two American friends, Claribel and Etta Cone became important patrons of Matisse and Picasso, collecting hundreds of their paintings and drawings.

It was at Stein’s salon that Henri Matisse first met Pablo Picasso. The two became lifelong friends and rivals, each establishing themselves as pioneers and leaders of the Modern art movement.

The works of Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, and Renoir dominated Stein’s collection. While Michael’s wife Sarah’s collection mostly comprised Matisse’s artworks.

Matisse also had a long association with Russian businessman Sergei Shchukin, who became an art collector mainly of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. He became a major patron of Matisse.

Sergei decorated his mansion with the artwork of Matisse. Matisse even created one of his most iconic paintings La Danse (The Dance) (1909), specifically for Shchukin as part of a two-painting commission, the other one being Music (1910).

La Danse was a key point of Matisse’s career and in the development of Modern art.

Academie Matisse

In 1907, Matisse’s friends organized and financed the Academie Matisse in Paris, a private, non-commercial school in which Matisse instructed young artists. The idea for the academy came from the Steins.

Matisse often pushed his students to think outside of the lines and to follow their visions.

The academy operated until 1911 when it was finally shut down.

Post World War I Years

In 1917, Henri Matisse left Paris and moved to Cimiez on the French Riviera.

His work in the decade following the end of the War displays a relaxation and softening of his approach, similar to the Neoclassicism of Picasso.

During this period, Matisse painted quite a few orientalist odalisque paintings. An odalisque was basically a chambermaid or a female attendant in a Turkish seraglio, particularly the court ladies in the household of the Ottoman Sultan.

Even though many art critics found these works of his to be shallow and decorative, the paintings nevertheless became quite popular.

Matisse continued to actively collaborate with other artists, absorbing and learning from them as much as possible. The result of these collaborations was that a new style began appearing in his work from the 1930s onward. His work displayed bolder simplification and renewed vigor.

World War ll Years

In 1939, Henri Matisse’s wife, Amelie, ended their marriage of forty-one years on suspicion that he was having an affair with Lydia Delectorskaya, a young Russian refugee who had found temporary work with the Matisses as a studio assistant and domestic help, and then later on as a model for Matisse’s paintings.

When Matisse sacked Lydia in order to prevent his wife from leaving him, Lydia tried to shoot herself in the chest. Miraculously, she survived.

But Amelie left Matisse anyway, bringing an end to their marriage.

Upon Matisse’s request, Lydia moved in with him again and worked with him for the rest of his life, running the household, typing his correspondence, keeping records, paying the bills, coordinating his business affairs, and assisting in the studio.

In June 1940, when the Nazis invaded France, Matisse briefly contemplated leaving France for Brazil in order to escape the occupation, but later changed his mind and remained in Nice. He remarked that if everyone who had any value left France, then what would remain of France?

Matisse, along with other non-Jewish artists, was allowed to exhibit his art without any serious problems. But as far as the Jewish artists were concerned, their works were banned and removed from all French museums and galleries.

Even though Matisse was isolated in Nice throughout the war, the rest of his family actively participated in the French Resistance. His son, Pierre, who was by then an art dealer in New York, helped the anti-Nazi French and Jewish artists he represented to escape France and flee to America.

Matisse’s estranged wife, Amelie, was a typist for the French underground and was even jailed for six months.

And his daughter, Marguerite, who had played an active part in the French Resistance, was almost tortured to death by the Gestapo in a Rennes prison. She was then sent on a train to Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany but managed to escape when the train was halted during an Allied air raid. She survived in the woods until she was finally rescued by fellow resisters.

The Cut-out Phase

In 1941, Henri Matisse, aged 72, was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. He underwent surgery which was successful but resulted in some serious complications from which he nearly died.

After the surgery, Matisse was left bedridden for months, making it incredibly difficult for him to paint and sculpt like before.

This was when he turned toward a new style of art. Taking the help of his assistants he began creating cut-paper collages. He cut sheets of paper, which were usually pre-painted with gouache by his assistants, into different shapes of varying sizes and colors. Then he would arrange and rearrange them until he was able to create lively compositions.

Initially, Matisse created cut-outs that were small and modest in size. But as he began to enjoy the process and see the cut-outs as a completely new art form on its own, he began to experiment more, eventually creating mural-size works.

In 1943, Matisse moved to Vence, a commune in the hills of the Alps Maritime department, where he began working on his first major cut-out project, an art book titled Jazz. The book contained prints of colorful cut-paper collages accompanied by Matisse’s written thoughts.

The limited-edition book was first published in September 1947 by art publisher Teriade.

Post the publication and success of the book, Matisse began producing more such cut-outs that also included large mural-size ones.

In the final decade of Matisse’s life, the cut-out technique became his primary medium for creating artwork.


On 3rd November 1954, Henri Matisse, aged 84, died of a heart attack.

Matisse is interred in the cemetery of the Monastere Notre Dame de Cimiez, in the Cimiez neighborhood of Nice.


Henri Matisse is regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century, who helped to define the revolutionary developments of modern art.

Matisse’s work, along with Picasso’s, is responsible for significant and radical developments in the fields of painting and sculpting. These developments laid down the foundations of modern art.

Matisse, as one of the pioneers of modern art, helped change the way art was perceived and appreciated.

In 1952, Matisse established a museum dedicated primarily to his work in Le Cateau-Cambresis. The museum is now the third-largest collection of his works in France.

In 1963, the Musee Matisse, a municipal museum dedicated to Matisse’s work, was opened in Nice. The museum has one of the world’s largest collections of his works, tracing his artistic beginnings and his evolution through to his last works.

Without a doubt, Matisse’s work will continue to inspire artists for generations to come.