Henri Matisse

French, 1869-1954 Biography

Henri Matisse came from a family who were of Flemish origin and lived near the Belgian border.  At eight o'clock on the evening of December 31, 1869, he was born in his grandparents' home in the town of Le Cateau in the cheerless far north of France.  His father was a self-made seed merchant who was a mixture of determination and tightly coiled tension.

Henri had no clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life.  He was a twenty-year-old law clerk convalescing from appendicitis when he first began to paint, using a box of colors given to him by his mother.  Little more than a year later, in 1890, he had abandoned law and was studying art in Paris.  The classes consisted of drawing from plaster casts and nude models and of copying paintings in the Louvre.  He soon rebelled against the school's conservative atmosphere; he replaced the dark tones of his earliest works with brighter colors that reflected his awareness of Impressionism.  Matisse was also a violinist; he took an odd pride in the notion that if his painting eye failed, he could support his family by fiddling on the streets of Paris.

Henri found a girlfriend while studying art, and he fathered a daughter, Marguerite, by her in 1894.  In 1898 he married another woman, Amelie Parayre.  She adopted the beloved Marguerite; they eventually had two sons, Jean, a sculptor and Pierre who became an eminent art dealer.  Relations between Matisse and his wife were often strained.  He often dallied with other women, and they finally separated in 1939 over a model who had been hired as a companion for Mme. Matisse.  She was Madame Lydia, and after Mme. Matisse left, she remained with Matisse until he died.

Matisse spent the summer of 1905 working with Andre Derain in the small Mediterranean seaport of Collioure.  They began using bright and dissonant colors. When they and their colleagues exhibited together, they caused a sensation.  The critics and the public considered their paintings to be so crude and so roughly crafted that the group became known as Les Fauves (the wild beasts).

By 1907, Matisse moved on from the concerns of Fauvism and turned his attention to studies of the human figure.  He had begun to sculpt a few years earlier.  In 1910, when he saw an exhibition of Islamic art, he was fascinated with the multiple patterned areas and adapted the decorative universe of the miniatures to his interiors. As a continuation of his interest in the "exotic", Matisse made extended trips to Morocco in 1912 and 1913.

At the end of 1917, Matisse moved to Nice; he would spend part of each year there for the remainder of his life.  A meticulous dandy, he wore a light tweed jacket amd a tie when he painted.  He never used a palette, but instead squeezed his colors on to plain white kitchen dishes and used them just as they came out of the tube.

During the early 1930s Matisse was engaged in designing murals for the Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia.  He was also commissioned to illustrate a number of books, for which he made etchings.

Although he suffered a serious illness and underwent surgery for intestinal cancer early in 1941, he was able to continue.  His recovery left him unable to paint comfortably at an easel.  Instead of relaxing as might have been expected, he grew younger as he grew older.  He turned to colored paper and a pair of scissors, raising color to an emotional level and simplifying forms to a childish simplicity.  While he worked he saw almost no one except the handsome Russian Livia Delectorskaya, who was his chief model, housekeeper, secretary and protector.