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Famous French Artists: All about Henri Matisse

Learn all about Henri Matisse, the famous French painter and major figure of 20th century art. A draughtsman, printmaker, painter and sculptor, he was known for his bright use of colour and fluid drawing skills.

About Henri Matisse

Matisse was born on the 31st December 1869 in Nord, a department in northern France. Rather than become a seed seller like his father, he studied law and became a clerk, before switching to painting. He spent a lot of time in Paris, moving in artistic circles and attending Gertrude Stein’s famous Saturday evenings at 27 Rue de Fleurus. In 1917, he moved to Nice, and largely remained there for the rest of his life, including during the Second World War. Towards the end of his life, illness meant that he had to remain seated, yet he continued to work. He died in Nice in 1954 at the age of 84.

La Danse (The Dance) (1910) is Matisse’s most famous artwork, depicting 5 dancing figures in a wood.

His art journey

Appendicitis was the reason Matisse started painting! While bed bound with the disease at the age of 20, he began painting to pass the time. At the start of his career, Australian painter John Russel introduced him to the work of Vincent Van Gogh, which had a profound influence on Matisse’s style. He transformed his use of color to bright, bold hues rather than earthier tones.

At the start of the 20th century, Matisse was part of a group exhibition at the Salon d’Automne (Autumn Salon), which caused controversy for their ‘outrageous’ use of bright and expressive colours. After a critic labeled them les fauves, French for ‘wild beasts’, the group adopted the term, creating Fauvism. Matisse is seen as the leader of Fauvism, with Andre Derain.

Matisse famous painting
Femme au Chapeau (Woman with a hat) 1904) was one of the ‘shocking’ Fauvist paintings at the Salon d’Automne!

Throughout his life he traveled extensively in Europe, Africa and the US. The Mediterranean was a great source of inspiration for Matisse, particularly for its colours and light. A trip to Tahiti in 1930 had a great effect upon the artist’s style. It ‘rekindled [his] imagination’, influencing him to work with cut-outs, creating exotic shrubs and plants.

In the years before his death, Matisse converted his home into a studio and worked from his bed. He turned to the cut paper collage technique, which he described as ‘drawing with scissors’, cutting shapes into painted sheets of paper. The artist would then direct his assistants to assemble the artworks.

Fun Facts about Matisse

  1. At the start of his career, Matisse went into debt from collecting works by artists he admired, including Cézanne, Rodin and Gauguin!
  2. Pablo Picasso was one of Matisse’s best friends and greatest rivals, both inspiring each other but arguing frequently. Indeed, Matisse said that they were as different as the North and South Poles! They held an exhibition together in 1918.
  3. In the Second World War, Matisse’s wife and daughter were arrested for acts of resistance. His daughter was an active member of the French Resistance, and was tortured by the Gestapo, permanently disfiguring her. His son, an art dealer, helped many Jewish artists escape to the US from Occupied France.
  4. Matisse was a theatre designer! In 1920 he made the costume and set for Le Chant du Rossignol.
  5. In his final years, Matisse represented France at the 25th Venice Biennale in 1908 – and won!
  6. Matisse’s painting Le bateau was exhibited upside-down at MoMA New York. It was 46 days before anyone noticed!
His Blue Nudes (1952) are very recognisable, made towards the end of his life.

See Matisse’s art in Paris

The Centre Pompidou, famed for its collection of modern art, has several pieces by Matisse in its collection. In Summer 2020, it was going to hold the largest exhibition of his works since 1970, on the occasion of the painter’s 150th anniversary. If you fancy a trip to the South of France, you can visit the Musée Matisse in Nice.

Article written by Arabella Patrick

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