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Artist in Focus : Henri Matisse

In this section for Art From Us, we pick one artist to showcase their work and creative journey so far. Today, we look at Henri Matisse.

Early Life

One of the pioneers of a revolutionary art movement Henri Matisse was born in 1869, in the small town of Bohain-en-Vermandois in northern France. He belonged to a businessman’s family which had nothing to do with art. As his primary job Matisse was a legal clerk and studied law for two years between 1887-1889. At the age of 21, it was an attack of appendicitis that brought Matisse to art and subsequently, his art to the world.

By 1891, post recovery he moved to Paris to study at the prestigious Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts, where he was schooled in the formal and traditional approach to art. It was while he was studying the old masters, he came into contact with  Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh and their Post Impressionistic works. 

The Turning Point

It was in the summer of 1905 that Matisse would have his turning point. It was on  a visit to the Mediterranean village of Collioure, where he produced Open Window and Woman with a Hat.  Also while he was in Saint-Tropez, in the south of France he had painted Luxe, calme et volupté (1904-1905) Both the works were a departure from his past styles, it carried, what would be his hallmark style of the loosened brush strokes and dappled and bright canvases. This period also saw a flattening of the canvas. Art was unbound and did not have to subscribe to a painterly tradition.

Thus as he exhibited his works Salon d’Automne exhibition, in Paris, he earned the acerbic criticism of contemporary art critic Louis Vauxcelles. Vauxcelles stated Matisse was  a – “Donatello among the wild beasts.” Thus the Fauvist movement was unintentionally born.

While Matisse focussed on figures from 1911 to 1916 withing interior spaces, with oriental decorations; 1917 – saw him move to his “Nice period” and saw the brightening of the canvas. Between 1930 – 1933, Matisse evolved to experimenting with tapestry, glass engravings and illustrations. He was commissioned to create a mural for Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania.


Though the movement rapidly evolved and moved past the initial parameters of the Fauvists; there were several artistic influences that it incorporated. Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Matisse’s own personal  reflection post his time in Algeria, all contributed to the movement eventually running out and it would later give way to modern art. Matisse acquired financial support to start an art school in 1908, starting with a group of eighty art students over three years. Managing to gain patronage from collectors of avant-garde art, it including the Russian collector Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, who would own over a dozen of his works.

The effects of personal tragedy and the World War II, saw the brilliant painter suffer ill health and painting less and less and working with paper cut outs.

In 1954 Matisse succumbed to a heart attack and his brush fell silent.

To learn more about iconic artworks and their socio-political context, visit Artwork in Focus.

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