Biography for Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954)

After studying and working in law, Matisse moved to Paris in 1891 to study painting here he discovered impressionism, and the artists Turner, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van gogh. However the colours were not vital enough for him and he became the pioneer of the then avante – guarde Movement ‘Fauvism’, to which he is still associated today. ‘Fauvism’ litererally means wild, it involves using flat areas of colour and was at a time when new colour pigments became available, which he experimented with.  He used reds, mauves, viridian greens and oranges never seen with such force and confidence before.

Henri Matisse was the son of a grain merchant. His first studies were in law and he worked as a legal clerk in a notary's office at Saint-Quentin in the Picardy region. During a convalescence, he began to draw.

This initial experience led to his moving to Paris in 1891 to study painting. closer to the contemporary avant-garde movements. Matisse then discovered Impressionism, Turner, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and others. In 1904, after meeting Signac, the theoretician of the divisionist method first developed by Seurat, he painted Luxe, calme et volupté. But he was not satisfied with this canvas: "My dominant colours, meant to be deepened and given value by the contrasts, were in fact swallowed up by the contrasts, to which I gave as much weight as to the dominants. This led me to paint using flat slabs of colour; this was fauvism".

In 1951, when he had just completed the last major project of his life, the Chapelle du Rosaire at Vence, Matisse summed up close on fifty years of work in these few words: "For me this chapel is the culmination of an entire working life and the flowering of a huge effort that has been heartfelt and arduous."

The only working life of an artist to match his in longevity was that of his contemporary, Picasso. But unlike the latter, Matisse produced an oeuvre subservient to a single idea: the search for a balance of colours and forms; by the end of his life, he succeeded in imprinting this upon matter, though, as he himself made plain, it was not without effort.

Indeed we learn from Matisse that from the first picture that got him noticed, Luxe, calme et volupté, in 1904, all the way to the chapel at Vence, the simplicity, freshness and the immediately striking brilliance that characterise his work came into being only as a result of much deep thought.

In order to reconcile colour with drawing through his gouache-painted cutouts, he had to deploy sculpture and flatness of colour in turn, in other words abstracting colour from design and vice versa, so as to circumscribe their respective potencies.

So that "art and decoration" would be "just one and the same thing", he studied architecture and saw how painting can transfigure it.

Finally, for painting to become that "art of balance, purity and serenity, with no troubling or disquieting subjects, so that for any mental worker, for example the businessman just as much as the artistic man of letters, it can be a soothing influence on the brain, rather the way a good armchair gives him relaxation from physical tiredness" (as he observed in 1908), Matisse pursued his original intuition through the great currents of art history over half a century: divisionism, fauvism and abstraction - without ever getting lost.

He had to travel a great deal too: to Brittany and the south of France, opening himself to Eastern influences on a trip to Morocco, visiting America and Oceania.

At the end of this odyssey through colour and ornamentalism, for the artists of the generation that came after him, both in the US and in Europe, Matisse became what André Masson called "the oasis of Matisse"; for the American abstract painters of the Fifties and Sixties, from Rothko to Kelly, from Sam Francis to Robert Motherwell; for Hantaï and Viallat in France in the Sixties - all of whom drew their source of inspiration from the freshness of his œuvre.