Major Shows of Matisse Open This Year. Here’s a Refresher on the Essential Modernist Artist

Ripe fruit, luxurious fabrics, comely women, a window with a view of an ultramarine sea: the world of Henri Matisse is one of pleasures. Along with fellow modernist Pablo Picasso, he is one of the giants of the 20th-century avant-garde, a perennial subject of blockbuster exhibitions whose cut-paper figures are among the most famous images in art history.

According to several recent biographies, he was also a workaholic, a depressive, and a frequent punching bag for the Parisian intellectual vanguard, which ran hot and cold on his paintings’ busy patterning and lush palette. (His stalwart frenemy Picasso, upon seeing Matisse’s full-bodied Blue Nude from 1907, apparently sneered “If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman. If he wants to make a design, let him make a design.”)

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Be that as it may, by Matisse’s own account, painting was all that made sense; he was ordered to it like an apostle conferenced by God. “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life,” he said, looking back at the end of his life. “I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.”

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude III 1952, at The Tate Modern in 2014.

He began making art without any formal training, guided by instinct toward the kind of pictorial innovation pursued by his modernist peers. But where the Cubists folded the human figure into hostile angles, Matisse let it flow. (“One must always search for the desire of the line, where it wishes to enter, where to die away,” he told his students.) And where the De Stijl painters organized the soul into rigorous geometries; Matisse loosened it in potent bursts of pure color. Throughout his decades-long career he tried sculpting, drafting, and printmaking, to varying success.

This year, two major shows of Matisse will open in the United States—“Matisse in the 1930s,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this October, and “The Red Studio,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on May 1. Both zero in on specific, formative moments in Matisse career which led to his innovations: flattening three-dimensional space in his compositions, and privileging subjective experience over illusion.

Henri Matisse, in “The Red Studio,” from 1911.

“The Red Studio” reunites six paintings, three sculptures, and one ceramic by Matisse for the first time since they were gathered in his studio. The painting from which the exhibition takes its name, The Red Studio, was painted in the Paris suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux in 1911, and depicts the artist’s studio, filled with what amounts to a retrospective of his work. Small versions of his paintings pop against the room’s walls, which are rendered in unmodulated rust red. There are no windows, or doors, or much in the way of perspective. Delicate white lines suggest corners and a grandfather clock. But the clock has no hands—here there’s no time nor exit. Yet Matisse’s triumph is in overpowering unease with intrigue; time is a drag anyway, and there’s plenty of art to admire.

For a refresher to the artist’s life and creative achievement, read on.

The Lawyer Becomes a Painter

Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse was born in northeastern France, where his family had been involved in the textile industry for generations. (Matisse himself became a collector of fabrics at an early age.) After studying for a law degree in Paris, he took a job in a law firm; to counter the tedium, he started drawing. Later that year, while in bed with appendicitis, he was given a paint set by his mother, who was herself an accomplished porcelain artist. His passion for the medium was so immediate, so all-encompassing, that he reportedly warned his young bride Amélie Parayre, whom he wed in 1898, “I love you dearly, mademoiselle; but I shall always love painting more.” (If that stung, she nevertheless supported him in his chosen career, acting as a personal manager in the early years of their marriage.)

Matisse did not attend art school, but took classes with French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, among others, and reproduced paintings in the Louvre. Many of his early works, some of which were shown in Paris in 1901, share the dark, moody palette and grand compositions of the Old Masters. Others, like Still Life with Compote, Apples and Oranges, 1899, now in the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, were indebted to the Impressionists.

A Wild Beast

Matisse’s artistic breakthrough came in the summer of 1905, while working alongside painter André Derain in the small fishing town of Collioure on the Mediterranean coast. Work made by the pair combines Vincent van Gogh’s vigorous brushwork, Georges Seurat’s brilliant color, and Cezanne’s fracturing of space; paints were used straight from the tube rather than mixed and laid down in bold strokes.

Later that year, Matisse caused a stir at the Salon d’Automne in Paris with his entry, the half-length portrait Woman with a Hat. Amélie sat for the picture and is outfitted like a proper bourgeoise in gloves, fan, and elaborate chapeau. Decorum ends there, however; the painting is made up of large, irregular patches of outlandish hues, which inspired critic Louis Vauxcelles to call Matisse and Derain—who submitted an equally expressive piece—fauves, or “wild beasts,” thus defining a movement. Woman with a Hat was acquired by Gertrude and Leo Stein, a coveted acknowledgment from Paris’s preeminent tastemakers.

Guests are seen next to "La Femme au Chapeau", Woman with Hat, a 1905 painting by French artist Henri Matisse, on the eve of the opening of the exhibition: Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, L'aventure des Stein, at the Graznd Palais in Paris, Tuesday Oct. 4, 2011.(AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

Henri Matisse, Woman with Hat, a 1905.

Matisse became the leader of the Fauves, a troupe, united by their rejection of naturalism, that included Georges Rouault and Henri-Charles Manguin. His monumental Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) (1905), a painting of nude revelers executed in rich, autumnal colors, is the distillation of Fauvism. It was first exhibited at the Salon des Indépendents of 1906, where its subject matter and distorted perspective caused even greater outrage than Woman with a Hat. (Picasso, not to be outdone, immediately started on his groundbreaking Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.)

Fauvism, however, was a short-lived movement; by 1908, many of the Fauves had taken up Cubism. Matisse, for his part, regained an interest in line work as a counterpoint to his simplified forms.

A Prolific Period

In the decade following, Matisse would produce some of his most important pieces, beginning with Dance (I) (1909), a preliminary study for a painting commissioned by his patron, the Russian industrialist Sergei Shchukin. In contrast to his earlier works, he used only five colors in the monumental canvas—a reductive approach that stresses the light steps of the dancers, who seem almost to float over the grass. One reaches an arm to the next in a motion so fluid, it takes a second look to realize the break in the circle. Matisse knew he’d attained something special and called the painting “the overpowering climax of luminosity.” A year later he completed Dance II. The mood here is tenser, the dance less a celebration than a ritual. The dancers are blood red, and new line work shows straining muscles; there’s little ease in the appearance of effortlessness.

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Henri Matisse's "Dance" hangs on display as part of a new exhibit Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011 in Atlanta. “Picasso to Warhol: Fourteen Modern Masters” at the High Museum of Art brings together more than 100 works by 14 influential 20th Century artists pulled from the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and shown together for the first time in the Southeast. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Henri Matisse, Dance (I), 1909.

The fierce exuberance of these early paintings settled, for the better, into something more shadowed and stranger, as in the enigmatic Bathers With a Turtle, in which three stone-faced, awkwardly posed nude women observe a turtle; one woman offers it a scrap of food. The masterpiece Piano Lesson, from 1916, is the closest he came to Cubism. It’s a picture of his son, Pierre, practicing piano, but the abstracted details of the scene trip the viewer at every turn. A darkening garden seen through the window is reduced to a green wedge; an echoing triangle of shadow, cast by a harsh interior light, obscures half of the boy’s face. Matisse painted this while Pierre was serving in World War I. His father seems to be conjuring a happier memory, but the present intrudes.

A New Home in Nice

In 1917, Matisse relocated to Cimiez, a suburb of Nice on the French Riviera, where he pursued a relaxed variation on neoclassical painting that was well received. World War I had ended, and with it a degree of avant-gardism in France. He rented a room at the Hôtel Beau Rivage facing the beach. While living there, he rose early, ate simply from the hotel’s restaurant, and painted incessantly. He produced sumptuous interiors whose windows open to views of bright sky and sea. In 1922, following a trip to Morocco, he embarked on series of odalisques—a genre of Orientalist art featuring eroticized depictions of harems or concubines—like Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, painted a year after his return from North Africa. He claimed he created odalisques as an excuse to “paint the nude,” but he seems to have taken greater pleasure in the womens excessively ornamental environments, as in Odalisque with Tambourine (Harmony in Blue) (1926), where a Moorish carved and painted door nearly subsumes the semi-nude models presence.

27 April 2018, New York, USA: The painting "Odalisque couchee aux magnolias" by the painter Henri Matisses hangs in the Christie's auction house in New York. The painting is to be auctioned off as part of the art collection of the late US billionaire David Rockefeller. Photo by: Johannes Schmitt-Tegge/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Henri Matisse, Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, 1923.

The Last, Radical Cut-outs

Matisse stayed in Nice until his death in 1954. He spent the final decade and a half of his life as an invalid following an abdominal surgery — a “second life,” he called it, dedicated only to art. He set oil painting aside and developed his most radically innovative art form, the cut out. Putting scissors to gouache-painted paper, he arranged organic and geometric shapes into dynamic compositions with help from his studio assistant and secretary Lydia Delectorskaya. Modest experiments grew into ambitious undertakings.

His projects included prototypes for the 1947 illustrated book Jazz and a commission for a convent in Venice—the final design for which included seventeen stained-glass windows and several abstract murals. (The modernist chapel opened in 1951 to the puzzlement of the nuns, who eventually embraced its singular aesthetic as a point of pride.)

In the summer of 1952, after returning from a trip to the pool in Cannes, he bid Delectorskaya to laterally wrap the walls of the dining room at the Hôtel Régina with white paper. He then cut out divers and sea creatures out of deep blue paper and pinned them onto the white backdrop, orchestrating a dance of bodies breaching the water.

Matisse once said that he was searching in art for “the same things, which I have perhaps realized by different means.” As a testament to the success of his search, take the female figure—a subject he explored ceaselessly and made new, as in the cut-out Zulma. She is limited to essentials, gentle lines and radiant color, and mysteriously liberated in the process.


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