By: Victoria Yates
Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse was born in Le Cateau-Cambresis in the North of France on the 31st of December 1869. His parents owned a seed business in Bohain-en-Vermandois where he grew up, which was at the time a centre for lace making. He decided early that he didn’t want to follow in their footsteps but was ultimately unsure what he would do instead. At the age of 19 he was bedridden for months after an attack of appendicitis (which some have speculated may have actually been depression). It was at this relatively late stage that he was first introduced to art when his mother gave him a ‘painting set’ to cheer him up. It was an experience he later came to describe as the discovery of a ‘sort of paradise’.
He went to Paris in 1891 to study art at the Academie Julien where he painted in the traditional Flemish style, with still life and a dark palette. He accredits the painter John Peter Russell (who he visited in 1897 and 1898 on an island off the coast of Brittany) as having introduced him to impressionism and color. Still Matisse carried on in Paris with his relatively conformist work garnering little attention. He fell in love with his model, Caroline Joblau, with whom he had a daughter Marguerite in 1894. But he married Améllie Noellie Parayre four years later, and the pair raised his daughter and had two further sons of their own.
His first solo exhibition in 1904 occurred without much success - but what followed it the year later was to change Matisse and his work forever. It was a trip to the small coastal town of Collioure at the age of 36 that seems to have given Matisse the first seeds of inspiration that were to become his signature - his bold use of color. Critically these works were equally admonished as they flew in the face of all conventions of realism, color use, and shading that had been established over time. However, it became obvious to many critics that while they viewed him as a ‘fauve’ or wild beast, he was not someone they could ignore.
Truly a leader of ideas. What Matisse was doing was creating a canvas that reflected an emotional mood as opposed to forming faithful representations of the scenes witnessed.
Many of Matisse’s greatest works were created between 1906-1917 despite this critical reception. He did however successfully catch the attention of the Russian magnate and avid art collector Sergei Shchukin, who eventually had the largest collection of Matisse works in the world. Shchukin commissioned Matisse to create two large panels for his palace in Moscow in 1909 which lead to the creation of Dance II; a scene of almost primal joy with incredibly simple colors. It has become iconic in modern times but was once again dismissed at the time as hideous by critics.
At the outbreak of WWI Matisse attempted to enlist in the armed forces, only to be told he was too old. His painting from around this time (The Piano Lesson) showed his son Pierre being forced to practice piano - something he later admitted that he abhorred. It is a considerably more somber work in which the depth of Matisse’s emotional portrayal becomes very much evident. His use of simplistic color and form instead of creating light and happiness captured the sense of loss that was permeating France at the time.
In 1917 Matisse moved to Nice where his work became much less transgressive and focused particularly on ‘Odalisques’, a traditional portrayal of nude women in the exotic settings of a harem. These works sold much better than his previous ones but were lacking in the visionary nature of his earlier paintings. It was a trip to New York around 1930 that produced a change in Matisse and seemed to push him back towards his earlier focus on form and color. He was commissioned to create a piece that would fit across three alcoves in the new Barnes Foundation. It was on such a scale that Matisse stood with a charcoal block attached to a bamboo stick tracing out the outlines for what would become The Dance II.
He and his wife separated in 1939, around the same time he met the Russian Lydia Delectorskaya. Although it isn’t known whether there was a romantic connection, Lydia modeled for him as well as served as his secretary and carer in later life, staying with him until his death. In 1941 Matisse was diagnosed with bowel cancer and underwent surgery in an attempt to stem it. Following the cancer he experienced a surge in creativity. He increasingly simplified his art, coming to use a collage technique to create some of his later works. It was yet another break from any sense of convention in the painting world.
Shortly before he died, in 1951, he completed the Chapel he had begun building for the nunnery in which Sister Jacques-Marie, a former model of his turn Dominican Nun, lived. It was a project that took Matisse’s love of color, light, and serenity to a different plane, featuring stained glass windows that took on forms and colors that are recurrent in his works.
In 1954 Matisse died of a heart attack.
He was a powerful influence in ways that may be easy to underestimate. And this was not only within the artistic world within which he has many avid admirers - amongst them Mark Rothko who was once brought to tears by Matisse’s The Red Studio which he then sought to emulate in his own painting. Matisse’s exploratory and simple use of color has infiltrated popular culture through fashion, design, and even children’s books.
Dick Bruna adamantly states that without Matisse ‘Miffy’ would not exist. It was Matisse’s simplicity and bold use of color that inspired her creation. His use of colors and patterning has flooded the fashion world from Paul Smith to Yves Saint Laurent.
Matisse pioneered color and form in his works, leading a wave of emotional expression in art and a freeness that is still evident today. He was not a leader in a classical, “heroic” sense, but he followed a very clear vision, learnt from and reflected on events and his surroundings - and left an indelible mark on artists who came after him.
A giant in the world of the creative.