San Antonio Museum or Art

Who was Henri Matisse?

"Creativity takes courage."

— Henri Matisse


Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) was one of the most important and influential artists of the twentieth century. His paintings liberated color and line from being purely descriptive to becoming free and expressive—suggesting emotion rather than simply documenting what the eye sees. According to Matisse, looking at art should be like sitting in an easy chair.

Henri Matisse in the dining room of Etta Cone's apartment at the Marlborough Apartments, Baltimore, Maryland, December 17, 1930. Claribel Cone and Etta Cone Papers, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, The Baltimore Museum of Art. CP29.2.2

Henri Emile Benoît Matisse was born on December 31, 1869, in Le Cateau, a small town in northeastern France. His parents ran a store selling grain and household goods. When he was ten years old, Matisse was sent to St. Quentin, a much larger town, to attend school; at the age of eighteen, his father sent him to Paris to study law. While in Paris, Matisse spent time at the Louvre copying the works of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century masters, such as Jacob Jordaens, Peter Paul Rubens, and Jan Breugel the Elder.

After completing his legal studies, Matisse returned to St. Quentin to work as a law clerk. He also enrolled in a beginning drawing class that met every morning at 6:30. In 1890, while recovering from an appendectomy, his mother gave him a set of watercolors. With these, he made his first original painting, a still life of a pile of books. “The moment I had this box of colors in my hands, I had the feeling that my life was there,” he said.

In the winter of 1891, with his father’s blessing, Matisse set out for Paris, to study with William Adolphe Bouguereau. (One of Bouguereau’s paintings, Admiration (1897), is on display in the Museum’s European gallery). After being noticed in the studio at Ecole des Beaux Arts he was invited to work with Gustave Moreau, a French Symbolist painter.

In the early 1900s, Matisse sold few paintings and struggled to make a living as an artist. In 1904, he had his first solo exhibition at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in Paris. Vollard is regarded as one of the most important dealers in French contemporary art at the beginning of the twentieth century. The following year, Matisse and other young artists exhibited paintings that had bold colors and strong lines at the Salon d’Automne. While a few critics admired the approach, most were hostile toward what they interpreted as a lack of discipline. One gave the the artists the pejorative name les fauves, meaning wild beasts. Matisse’s second show that same year at Salon des Indépendants included fifty-five paintings, sculptures, drawings, and engravings. In 1906, Matisse and Pablo Picasso met and began a friendship that continued throughout their lives—one of mutual respect and competition, a friendly rivalry.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Matisse attempted to enlist but was refused because he was too old. He moved his family to Toulouse as German troops advanced towards Paris. In Toulouse he met Juan Gris, who with Georges Braque and Picasso, contributed to the start of Cubism, a movement which influenced Matisse’s work.

Matisse visited the Mediterranean city of Nice many times over the course of his life and had a studio there where many of his works were painted. The city profoundly influenced his artwork. “At no previous time in his career would physical location and environment play so large and long a role in contributing to the appearance of the resulting art,” wrote Jack Cowart in The Early Years in Nice 1916-1930.

While Matisse took up residence in Nice, his work was also influenced by a visit to Morocco in January 1912. Matisse spent time in Tangier soaking up the textiles, patterns, colors, and design of his surroundings. Though he was in Morocco only a few months, paintings completed in Nice during the 1920s include odalisques, lush foliage, bright wallpaper, and carpets influenced by the décor and flora of Morocco.

Physical location was not the only contributing factor to Matisse’s final work, so was the medium in which he was working. Throughout his career, Matisse worked in many mediums, often simultaneously. Albert Skira, a Swiss book publisher, commissioned Matisse’s first art book, a book of poetry by Stéphane Mallarmé entitled Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé (1932). Matisse would create twelve art books in total, the most celebrated of which is Jazz (1947), considered one of the greatest illustrated books of the twentieth century.

The years between 1939 and 1945 were difficult for Matisse. World War II was raging; his health declined; and he separated from his wife. In 1941, he underwent a serious operation for a tumor and spent months in bed recuperating. It was during this time that Matisse began to experiment with cutout forms, finding it impossible to paint during his recovery. Matisse reveled in this process, “The paper cutouts allow me to draw with color. For me, it is simplification. Instead of drawing an outline and then filling in with color─with one modifying the other─I draw directly in color…It is not a starting point, but a culmination.”

In 1948, Matisse began the design for the decoration of the Dominican nuns’ Chapelle du Roasaire (Chapel of the Rosary) at Vence, which was completed in 1951. The same year, a major retrospective of his work opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which traveled to several other American cities. Though he produced very few paintings in the last few years of his life, completing his last sculpture in 1950 and his last painting in 1951, Matisse continued to make large paper cutouts. Matisse is one of few artists whose late work was as original and vital as his early innovations.

In 1952, the Musée Matisse was inaugurated at the artist’s birthplace of Le Cateau. Two years later, in 1954 at the age of 84, Matisse suffered a heart attack and died. He is buried in Nice.