Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse, Self Portrait in a Striped Shirt, 1906

1869 – 1954

Exactitude is not truth.  Henri Matisse

Matisse started out as a law clerk.  He had no interest in art at all. Then, when he was twenty, he got appendicitis.   His mother gave him some art supplies to pass the time during recuperation.  He found in them “a kind of paradise.”

His father was deeply disappointed, but he abandoned law for art school. He was a quick study:

Henri Matisse, Woman Reading, 1894
Henri Matisse, The Studio of Gustave Moreau, 1894
Henri Matisse, Still Life with an Orange, 1899

Then in 1897-98 he was introduced to Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin and Signac.  He was enthralled by their simplification of subject matter, and especially with their use of color:

Henri Matisse, The Open Window, Collioure, 1905
Henri Matisse, Nude Man, 1900
Henri Matisse, Notre Dame in the Late Afternoon, 1902
Henri Matisse, Carmelina, 1903
Henri Matisse, Nude with White Towel, 1902

Artists are always pushing the limits.  This is his wife:

Henri Matisse, The Green Stripe, 1905
Henri Matisse, Woman with Hat, 1905

Can you guess what color her dress really was?

When an art critic saw this painting – and others like it – hung around a conventional Renaissance style statue he declared that the statue was “Donatello among wild beasts (fauves).”   The name stuck, and we call these wildly colored paintings from this period “Fauvist paintings,” and the artists themselves “fauves.

One critic, Camile Mauclair wrote that A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public, and this painting was burned in effigy in New York, at the Armory Show (we’ll get to that later):

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude, 1907

What made people so angry?

One of my favorite art critics, Robert Hughes, in his book The Shock of the New, says of Matisse:

Time and time again, Matisse set down an image of a pre-civilized world, Eden before the Fall, inhabited by men and women with no history, languid as plants or energetic as animals.

Why would this be appealing?  Threatening?

Henri Matisse, Luxe, Calme et Volupte, 1904-05
Henri Matisse, The Joy of Life, 1905-06
Henri Matisse, The Dance, 1910

Robert Hughes also tells us that:

Matisse loved pattern, and pattern within pattern: not only the suave and decorative forms of his own compositions but also the reproduction of tapestries, embroideries, silks, striped awnings, curlicues, mottles, dots and spots, the bright clutter of over-furnished rooms, within the paintings.  In particular he loved  Islamic art…Islamic pattern offers the illusion of a completely full world, where everything from far to near is pressed with equal urgency against the eye.

Henri Matisse, The Red Room, 1908

The Red Room started out all in blue.  What does the change in color do?  Why would he prefer it?

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911

A friend stopped by the studio and was amazed; the walls and floor weren’t really red. Why did Matisse paint them that way then?

Henri Matisse, The Window, 1916

This is a very brave painting, both in composition and color choice.  What’s with that stripe of light in the middle?   Why those colors?

Henri Matisse, The Casbah Door, 1912

How do these colors make you feel?

These are both goldfish paintings.  What is he reaching for?:

Henri Matisse, The Goldfish, 1910
Henri Matisse, The Goldfish, 1914

Does this help?

I don’t paint things. I only paint the difference between things.

Or maybe he said it better like this:

There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.

Or to paint a woman, or music or anything, for that matter.  It’s all been done.  Or has it?:

Henri Matisse, Woman in a Purple Coat, 1937
Henri Matisse, Music, 1939

Is he interested in the “real world?”

In the 1940s his health declined and he was confined to a wheelchair.  He was unable to paint at an easel, but he could still use scissors, and with the aid of assistants made paper collages:

Henri Matisse, The Knife Thrower, 1947
Henri Matisse, Polinesia, The Sky, 1947
Henri Matisse, The Beasts of the Sea, 1950
Henri Matisse, The Sorrow of the King, 1952

He even designed a chapel:

Picasso and Matisse were friends as well as rivals and are interesting to compare:

  • Who was a more intellectual painter?
  • Who was more sensual?
  • Both painted women:  Who was afraid of them?  Who celebrated them?
  • They had very different beginnings, and very different endings, but in many ways they had similar goals.  What were they?
  • Who do you like better and why?