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1869 – 1954

Henri Matisse was born Henri Emile Benoit, on December 31, 1869 in Le Cateau-Cambresis, Northern France. The son of a middle-class family, he began his young adulthood practicing law, until 1891, when he abandoned it to study painting. In 1892, he went to Paris to study art formally under Bougereau and Moreau, both of whom were academically trained and relatively conservative; Matisse's own early style was a conventional form of naturalism, using a sober range of color reminiscent of Corot. But in the summer of 1986, while painting in Brittany, he began to study the art of the Impressionists, namely Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Gaugin, leading to a change in his own personal style.


In 1899, Matisse began to experiment with the Neo-Impressionist technique, which he applied to one of his first major works, the celebrated Luxe, Calme et Volupte. The work was exhibited at the Salon des Independents in 1905, and bought by the artist Signac. In the same year, along with the artists Derain, Vlaminck, Marquet, Rouault and others from Moreau’s studio, Matisse created the sensational exhibition at the Salon d’Automne, from which arose the movement of Fauvism.


Although Fauvism was a short-lived movement, Matisse continued to experiment with the abstract and expressive use of pure color. He argued that an artist did not have complete control over color and form; instead, colors, shapes, and lines would come to dictate to the sensitive artist how they might be employed in relation to one another. He also believed in the total pictorial harmony of his art. “What I dream of,” he wrote, “is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or disturbing subject matter….like a comforting influence, a mental balm – something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue.”


While his innovative gestures made him a “radical” leader in the arts, he gained the approval of a number of influential critics and collectors, including the American expatriate writer Gertrude Stein. Among the many important commissions he received was that of a Russian collector who requested mural panels illustrating dance and music (both completed in 1911; now in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg). Such broadly conceived themes ideally suited Matisse; they allowed him freedom of invention and play of form and expression. His images of dancers, and of human figures in general, convey expressive form first and the particular details of anatomy only secondarily. Matisse extended this principle into other fields; his bronze sculptures, like his drawings and works in several graphic media, reveal the same expressive contours seen in his paintings. 


From the 1920s until his death, Matisse spent much time in the south of France, particularly Nice, painting local scenes with a thin, fluid application of bright color. Often bedridden during his last years, he occupied himself with decoupage, creating works of brilliantly colored paper cutouts arranged casually, but with an unfailing eye for design, on a canvas surface. Matisse’s famed Jazz suite is a quintessential example of this innovative technique.  Matisse died in Nice on November 3, 1954. Unlike many artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he was internationally popular during his lifetime, esteemed by collectors, art critics, and a younger generation of artists.

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