Henri Matisse: the master of colour

During a career spanning six decades, HENRI MATISSE created a vast body of work that changed the course of 20th-century art. Zoë McIntyre outlines his eventful life

Henri Matisse was born in Le Cateau-Cambrésis in the Nord département of France on 31 December 1869. The son of a grain merchant, Matisse trained in the law and became interested in art relatively late, while convalescing from appendicitis in his early 20s. The artist called the discovery ‘a kind of paradise’. Matisse abandoned his law career and moved to Paris to study art, first at the Académie Julian and then at the École des Beaux-Arts, where his tutor was symbolist master Gustave Moreau. Matisse studied the conventions of still life and landscape, but was also exposed to more contemporary art trends, such as the work of post-Impressionist painters Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh.

By the turn of the century, Matisse had parted with traditional technique and was experimenting with different styles of brushwork and compositions. His style underwent a drastic transformation when he spent the summer of 1904 with the pointillist painter Paul Signac in Saint-Tropez, in those days a quiet little fishing town. Seeking to capture the special light of southern France, Matisse used dots of pure colour instead of thick brushstrokes and replaced his earth-coloured paints with a bright, vivid palette.

Matisse exhibited alongside other progressive artists at the Salon d’Automne in 1905. The brisk strokes of intense colour in paintings such as La Femme au Chapeau (Woman with a Hat) led one scathing critic to dub the artists les fauves (wild beasts). It gave rise to the short-lived avant-garde fauvist movement, with Matisse at its helm.

The artist’s radical approach soon gained him international recognition. Collectors such as the American writer Gertrude Stein bought his art and in 1909, Russian magnate Sergei Ivanovich Schukin commissioned him to create two decorative panels, the acclaimed La Danse II and La Musique.

Matisse continued to reinvent his style and absorb new influences. Spending time among the artists of Montparnasse, he experimented with geometric lines and flattened perspective to echo Cubist form. His study of north African art during stays in Morocco and Algeria led Matisse to create exotic ‘odalisques’ – imaginary views of harems – filled with decorative patterns and rich colour.

In 1917, Matisse left Paris and settled in Cimiez, a suburb of Nice, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. Even in later years, Matisse refused to let ill-health impede his creativity; when bedbound, he drew with a pencil attached to the end of a pole that would enable him to reach his canvas.

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In later life, Matisse’s art became increasingly simplified and abstract. Between 1943 and 1954, he created a series of innovative paper cut-outs, known as gouaches découpées, which depicted expressive human figures with bold colour and shapes. The simplicity of his Blue Nudes characterised this style.

One of Matisse’s final projects was to design and decorate the Chapelle du Rosaire in the Alpes-Maritimes village of Vence. Although an atheist, Matisse took on the project as an act of gratitude to Monique Bourgeois, his nurse in the early war years, who had become a Dominican nun. From 1951-54, he worked tirelessly to create stained-glass, murals, sacred ornaments and an altar sanctuary. On its completion, he said: “In spite of all its imperfections I consider it my masterpiece.”

Matisse died in Nice on 4 November 1954 at the age of 84, leaving behind a huge volume of work. His treatment of colour and shape has had a lasting influence, from the palette used by the British painter Howard Hodgkin to the patterns of fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent.

The exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is running at Tate Modern in London from 17 April to 7 September (www.tate.org.uk).