Henri Matisse. Image: Brassai Henri Matisse. Image: Brassai

A major 20th century painting figure, Matisse influenced many renowned artists including Andy Warhol who traced his painting heritage back to the former notary’s clerk from Saint-Quentin, who would become a great fauvist. Henri, the man who swore by Cézanne and simplification. A recipe for success that turned him into one of the best-rated French painters and sculptors, fetching an average auction price of 3.2 million euros and setting a record in 2018 at 80 750 000 USD for Odalisque couchée aux magnolias from 1923.

'Odalisque couchée aux magnolias' from 1923. Image: Christie's 'Odalisque couchée aux magnolias' from 1923. Image: Christie's

Being bedridden isn’t an uncommon rite of passage for artists, it seems. Before Andy Warhol and his Sydenham’s chorea, before Jean-Michel Basquiat and his spleen removal, there was Henri Matisse and his appendicitis which forced him to stay in bed for several weeks when he was only 20.

Henri Matisse in his studio in 1939. Image: Flickr Henri Matisse in his studio in 1939. Image: Flickr

Thanks to his mother and their neighbour Paul Bouvier, both amateur painters, he started painting during his convalescence, and once back in good health, he signed up for a class at the Ecole Quentin-de-La-Tour, while returning to his job as a legal clerk in Saint-Quentin, not far from where his family, originally from Cateau-Cambrésis, moved after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
Apprenticeship and influences
It was in Paris that he would finish off his artistic education. Firstly at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in 1892, where he met Albert Marquet, a post-impressionist painter from Bordeaux. Then, from 1895 onwards, at the Ecole des Beaux-arts, in the workshop run by Gustave Moreau, who would have an enormous influence on him, particularly on his way of “thinking about” painting and tending towards simplification. An ambition that he would pursue all his life.


'Le Danseur' from 1937-38. Image: Christie's 'Le Danseur' from 1937-38. Image: Christie's

Matisse showed work for the first time – mainly classically produced still lifes – in 1896, at the Salon des Cent, then at the Salon held by the Société des Beaux-arts, into which he was co-opted as a member.

In that year, he met sculptor Auguste Rodin and Camille Pissarro while sojourning in Belle-Île-en-Mer, and through the latter, began to get interested in impressionism. At that time, he, like Marquet, more or less earned a living via decorative painting, namely for theatres.

Blue Nude II. Image: art.co.uk Blue Nude II. Image: art.co.uk

Already the father of a daughter, Marguerite, born in 1894 from his relationship with one of his models, he was planning to marry Amélie Parayre, with whom he would have two more children, Jean and Pierre, by the end of the century. The family started off living in Toulouse, near Amélie’s parents. During the couple’s honeymoon in London, Matisse discovered the work of William Turner who would inspire several of his paintings, executed in Corsica where the painter would move at the start of the 20th century with his wife and children.

Sculpture also piqued his interest, and under the supervision of Antoine Bourdelle, he studied modelling at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, which he frequented along with Eugène Carrière’s studio, where he met André Derain, then Maurice de Vlaminck. The fauvists, from fauve, the French word for “wild beast”, would now begin to roar together.

Nu de dos, 4 état (Back IV), also the tenth most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction. Image: Christie's Nu de dos, 4 état (Back IV), also the tenth most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction. Image: Christie's

The fauvist years
At the Salon d’Automne in 1905, Matisse and his comrades caused tongues to wag with the broad zones of gaudy single colours covering their canvases. One critic described that year’s Salon as a “cage of fauves”. Fauvism was born, and Henri Matisse became the leader of the pack, taking on the role of theoretician of the short-lived movement (1905-1910), which would revolutionise painting by releasing colour and bringing repercussions as far afield as Japan.

Femme au chapeau. Image: Wikimedia 'Femme au chapeau'. Image: Wikimedia

Shortly afterwards, Matisse met the collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein who purchased his Femme au chapeau, a portrait of a woman that was shown at the Salon d’Automne. They introduced the artist to Picasso, with whom he would maintain a “professional” relationship that was not devoid of competition. Matisse’s works were exhibited in Moscow, Berlin, Munich, London, and even New York in 1913, alongside work by Duchamp and Picabia, to exemplify the most modern creations in art on the eve of World War I.

During this period, Matisse travelled a great deal, especially to Andalusia and the Maghreb – regions that would mark his subsequent works by a new approach to colour and the development of arabesques.

'Les régates de Nice', created in Nice in 1921. Image: Christie's 'Les régates de Nice', created in Nice in 1921. Image: Christie's

From 1908, he also taught in his free academy at the Couvent des Oiseaux in Paris. But the fauve would escape from his cage, and after the Great War, he moved to Nice and the Côte d’Azur where he would produce most of his work, now an established and recognised painter. In the south of France, he met Renoir, worked on ballet costumes and sets commissioned by Stravinsky and Diaghilev, and from 1924 onwards turned to sculpture, namely producing a series of large-scale nudes.

In 1925, Matisse was awarded the title of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. Two years later, he won the Carnegie Prize in Pittsburgh. He regularly visited the United States where many of his collectors resided, and where his son Pierre opened a gallery, in New York.

Henri Matisse. Image: henrimatisseenhetfauvisme.weebly.com Henri Matisse. Image: henrimatisseenhetfauvisme.weebly.com

On the eve of World War II, he separated from Amélie who, along with his daughter Marguerite, would be active in the Resistance against the Nazi invaders. In 1941, Matisse was operated on for colon cancer. Forced to wear an iron corset, he was given just six months to live by his doctors…

Henri Matisse died on 3 November 1954 in Nice, after representing France at the 25th Venice Biennale at the age of 81, and also participating in the inauguration of the museum dedicated to him in Cateau-Cambrésis two years previously. Another Musée Matisse would open its doors in Nice, the city where he was buried under ten years later.

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