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Henri Matisse: King of the Wild Artists

Henri Matisse (1869 to 1954) was a French artist who worked for nearly six and a half decades. He was a very skilled creator, and over the course of his career, he made paintings, sculptures, graphic art, collages, etchings, lithographs, and book illustrations. Throughout his entire creative life, he strived for “balance, purity, and serenity,“ as stated in his memoir “Notes of a Painter“ from 1908.

Matisse has a place in the Hall of Fame of modern art, at the same rank as Picasso, since he was the leader of Fauvism, the avant-garde movement that kick-started the 20th century.


Table of Contents

Biographical background
    Early career
Late career
     Line drawings


Biographical background

Henri Matisse’s early adult life started at law school. He frequented an evening art class as a hobby, but when he was healing from a severe case of appendicitis, he found great joy in painting as a means to pass the time. A year after his recovery, in 1891, he went to Paris to study art, much to the disdain and disappointment of his father.

Matisse’s early artistic education was strictly academic - in a realistic, neoclassical style. There was no room for self-expression. After a year, he changed schools to study under a more tolerant teacher, symbolist Gustav Moreau. He encouraged students to find their style, a teaching method that appealed to Matisse. After his master’s death, Matisse was kicked out of the academy by the new, less free-spirited master. 


The most recurring subjects in Matisse‘s paintings are landscapes, still lives, people, domestic and studio interiors, and the female figure. Matisse started exhibiting his early works in 1895. His painting “Woman Reading“ garnered great success, which boosted his confidence.

Woman Reading, 1894
Woman Reading, 1894/Source
Matisse was always rebellious. His 1897 artwork “Dinner Table“ caused quite a stir since he was combining impressionist luminosity with deeper tones of red and green. Normally, impressionist paintings are characterized by bright and light colors and short, quick, visible brushstrokes meant to mimic the movement of light. These paintings were usually painted outside, as the impressionists were interested in exploring the effect of light on color perception. Combining bright light with deeper tones meant outrageously breaking the impressionist norms.
The Dinner Table, 1897
The Dinner Table, 1897/Source


Matisse was an open-minded artist, very reactive to his surroundings. In his travels, he discovered the dynamic Parisian artistic scene: neoclassicism, realism, impressionism, and neo-impressionism. He met with influential artists such as Camille Pissarro, Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Manet, and Paul Cézanne.

A 1904 trip to Provence showed him light as he has never perceived it before. Matisse quickly left behind the dark, earthy palette of his early paintings to venture out into a world of bright colors. He discovered pointillism, a technique of laying paint on the canvas via small dots of complementary colors. The result was 1904’s “Luxury, Calm and Pleasure,” the masterpiece that marked the beginning of the Fauvist movement. 

Luxe, Calme et Volupté
Luxe, Calme et Volupté, 1904/Source

In French, the word “fauves” means wild animals. Matisse and his group of followers first exhibited their innovative works in a gallery for new artists. An art critic used "fauves" to illustrate his thoughts about the unprecedented use of color. While he meant it as an insult, Matisse and the rest adopted this moniker, calling themselves the fauvists and their style - fauvism.  

In the painting above, you can see the influences of pointillism, as the brushstrokes can easily be distinguished from one another. This creates a sort of dynamic jitter on the canvas, giving it life and luminosity. There is no attempt to create an illusion; the painting does not “try“ to hide the fact that it’s a painting. It does not try to mimic reality. On the contrary, it exposes the process of its own creation. This is a recurring theme in Matisse’s works.

Open Window, Collioure, 1905
Open Window, Collioure, 1905/Source

In “Open Window,” you can see this theme even more clearly than before: while the painting portrays a view of the horizon, there is no illusion of depth. The entire canvas is flat. It doesn't pretend to be a window to another reality - it remains loyal to being a canvas. The paint does not serve the object it portrays, there’s absolutely no hint of realism left. Matisse took pointillism to the extreme: the small dots become so large they turn into little blocks of color.

Portrait de Marguerite, 1906
Portrait de Marguerite, 1906/Source
In this portrait of Matisse‘s daughter, Marguerite, we can see a curiosity about indigenous cultures. This was the height of colonial times, and many Fauvists were interested in tribal ceremony masks. Marguerite‘s face looks as if carved of wood - it is the only area of the painting with bold contours. This also marks the beginning of Matisse‘s fascination with sculpture. Painting a face as a mask is something we see over and over in Matisse’s work from this time, as seen in paintings like “The Green Stripe“ or “Blue Nude (Memories of Biskra).”
1907, Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra)
Blue Nude: Memories of Biskra, 1907/Source

Following a few years of commissions and the exploration of interiors, Matisse started diving into cubism. He re-interpreted it as an outlet for abstract compositions with less-vivid colors, which quickly made way for a new interest in the female figure. This led to the creation of the ever-famous, ever-iconic “Dance“ in 1910. In preparation for it, Matisse started sketching using the collage technique, which is reflected in the painting. The women look as if cut from paper and taped onto the canvas. He would return to collage in the later stages of his career.

La Danse, 1910
La Danse, 1910/Source

Late career

As he grew older, Matisse became less fond of life in the public eye. He moved to Nice and his style relaxed into a natural color palette. Simultaneously, he developed his exploration of the female figure into a series of orientalist, somewhat decorative paintings. 

Montalban, Landscape, 1918
Montalban, Landscape, 1918/Source
Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background
Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background, 1925/Source
After being greatly preoccupied with light and color in the mid-1930s, Matisse‘s style boils down to a series of line drawings. Each drawing is flat. There is no illusion of depth created by light and shadow. He only uses pens and ink – no color at all. The drawings were all gathered into a published book collection called “Drawings, Themes and Variations.”
Grand Visage, 1952/Source




Sculpting was a medium that came and went in Matisse’s career. He created sculptures in series. Just like with his paintings, Matisse reveals the creative process. The surface is not sleek, and there is no attempt to mimic reality. For Matisse, there is a tightly-knit relationship between painting and sculpture. He used paintings as preparation for sculpting, and he used sculpting to solve problems he faced with paintings.

back I, 1908
Back (I), 1908/Source
The Back series consists of 4 reliefs of a female back in varying levels of abstractness. He strived to simplify the human body into geometrical shapes.
The Jeanette series was groundbreaking in the field of human facial representation. With every model he made, Matisse progressively simplified the facial features so that they revealed the matter from which they are made. 
The Jeanette series, 1910-1916 The Jeanette series, 1910-1916/Source
The "Seated Nude" is part of Matisse's exploration and fascination with the female figure seen throughout his career in various performances. This specific sculpture serves as an exploration of the complexity of the human body's movement. An unusual pose between sitting and reclining creates a constant tension between the viewer and the sculptor. 
Large seated nude 1925 -9
Seated Nude 1925-9/Source


In 1941, Matisse underwent surgery that put him in a wheelchair. His range of motion was compromised, but this woke another surge of creativity in him. It is one of his creative career's most daring and colorful eras. He attached his paintbrushes to long wooden sticks, but at a certain point, he rediscovered the collage, or as he called it, painting with scissors. Just as one paintbrush can give you both a thin and a thick line, so did the collage allow Matisse to explore a new realm in his creative skills.

Blue nude II 1952
Blue Nude II, 1952/Source
In “Blue Nude II,“ we can see a direct link between this collage and the creative process of "Dance" (1910), as well as hints of the plasticity in "Seated Nude" from 1925. The more collages he created, the deeper he stretched into abstractness and color expression, as can be seen in "The Sheaf" and "The Snail."
The Sheaf, 1953
The Sheaf, 1953/Source
The Snail, 1953
The Snail, 1953/Source
What made Matisse so influential in his day was his innovations in Fauvism. He caused an impactful wave in the world of avant-garde art. Looking at fauvist paintings today, they seem nice but not so revolutionary anymore. But If I were to name just one feature that makes Matisse still so inspirational, I would probably point to his curiosity. Every five years or so, something in his style changed radically. He went to the very edge of every creative tool he tried, and then he went beyond it. This adventurous spirit, which started with the courage to ditch the law in favor of art, is what makes Henri Matisse a source of infinite inspiration. 
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