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Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse (Le Cateau, 1869 – Nice, 1954)

Henri Matisse was born and raised in the village of Bóhain-en-Vermandois, where his parents had a thriving trading business. He graduated in law in Paris in 1887 and until that moment he had shown no special interest in art. Back in his hometown he worked as a lawyer intern, but bored by the routine of the office began to attend drawing classes and perspectives at the School of Decorative Arts. In 1892 Matisse was invited to be part of the study of Gustavo Moreau, who had obtained the title of professor of Fine Arts that same year. Three years later, he entered the School of Fine Arts but did not abandon the study of his former teacher, whose teachings attracted him more than the academic classes he received at the School. He particularly detested the insistence in teaching skills to mechanically copy the appearance of things.

Henri Matisse “The Study of Gustave Moreau” 1895

On the contrary, Moreau was at that time an unusual teacher who encouraged his students to manifest and take advantage of the strength of their imagination and their feelings, and made them work in techniques that allowed them to master and manage the colours. Although it did not stop there, he encouraged his students to study the old masters and the works that were kept in the museums. Thus, Matisse came to paint numerous works exhibited in the Louvre and although he was not enthusiastic about the mere exercise of copying, throughout his career will appear constant references to the old paintings of which he admired the force of the drawing and the delineation.

Woman Reading, 1894 by Henri Matisse

In spite of the teachings of his master Moreau, Matisse’s early original works did not reflect the insistent and novel teachings he received from him, as can be seen in “Woman Reading” (1894) or Interior with a Top Hat (1896). “Woman Reading” would be his first work in an important exhibition, the National Hall of Fine Arts of 1896, which was also very well received by critics.

Henri Matisse “Interior with a Top Hat” (1896)

In this first moment Matisse was centered in the realization of works that represented still lifes or interiors removed of the reality, without imaginative resources, treated with a very reduced palette, reflection of the images that collect in the museums or in expositions like the realized ones by those years of Corot or Manet.

In 1897 he enrolled in an experimental course during which he devoted himself to working on new aesthetic paths that allowed him to modernize his painting. Thus, influenced by the impressionists who were gaining luminosity through his palette and locking a loose brushstroke, at the same time that he began to paint in the open air.

Henri Matisse “La Mesa” (1897)

This same year, he again presented a work to the National Salon of Fine Arts, La mesa (1897), a work that synthesized the advances of that last year. In the pictures he made during the summer at Belle-Ile, the shades were pale but bright and luminous, and the decomposing brushstroke that allowed him a greater informality in composition, as he had observed in the works of Monet and Pisarro, Sea and rocks (1987). The same ways he used in interior paintings, in still lifes and still lifes, that would be along with the naked his favorite subjects, like Still life with oranges (1898).

Henri Matisse “Still life with oranges” (1898)

In 1898, he married Amélie and traveled to London for their honeymoon. There he would visit the museums of the city where he met and studied the works of Turner. On his return to France he continued painting in the south of the country, practicing landscape painting. Matisse embodied the nature he had around him in multiple forms, from the most conservative interpretations to the most exuberant prints, with expressive use of colour. In this way, Matisse began to establish and manifest his own pictorial principles, arising from the experience of his constant creative activity and the reading of Signac’s treatise, published in the Revue Blanche in 1898, which allowed him to move away from Impressionism.

Henri Matisse and his wife Amélie

When he had an opportunity he began to buy works of the artists he admired. Ambroise Vollard will sell him among others: Three bathers (1881) by Cézanne, Young with flowers (1891) by Gauguin, some drawings by Van Gogh and a sculpture by Rodin, Bust by Henri Roehefort. The figures of the works of Cézanne and Rodin, would mark especially the human models that would later develop, as much in painting as in sculpture, and that would constitute with the time outstanding subject of his works.

In order to work regularly with models, he went to various academies in Paris (Julián, Camillo, Colarossi) to draw and take sculpture classes, the latter at the Municipal School of the Villa of Paris. It is in these circles that he would engage some of the future Fauvists. In the Camillo Academy he met André Derain, who was later introduced by Maurice Vlaminck. Soon the three would become the main figures of the new movement.

Returning to the interest aroused in Matisse by the human figure, the artist worked intensely to discover the plastic resources that this subject provided him, using it occasionally as a block of colour contrasts and sometimes to play with the line of drawing that circumscribes it. In this way he was introduced to the defining elements of his work: on the one hand, the sinuous and rhythmic line, arranged in arabesques reminiscent of modernist decorativism, as is the case of Estudio de desnudo en azul ( 1899-1900) or The bronze Madeleine (1901); And, on the other hand, the forceful and compact use of the body mass of great structural strength, as in Male Model (1900) or in Sculpture The Slave (1900-1903).

Henri Matisse “Male Model” (1900)

The first years of the twentieth century would be the most difficult for Matisse, despite having achieved a certain plastic definition and working hard in painting and sculpture, but he could not sell his works, nor receive good reviews for the pieces he had presented To the Hall of Independents of 1901.

Henri Matisse became worn out and suffered with bronchitis, his wife was no better she suffered with bad health after giving birth to his second son. During this bad stretch Matisse was forced to work again in the family business in Bohain-en-Vermandois. The compliments he had received at the beginning when he appeared at the National Salon des Beaux Arts in 1896 as a promising young man thanks to the conservatism of his work would now be withdrawn because of the novelty of his art.

This period made him probably rethink the new aesthetic paths he had taken, and, perhaps to get his works sold better, repainted in a more impressionist style, with calmer colours and softer subjects. Fruit of this return are “The Guitarist” (1903) and “Road to Bois de Boulogne” (1902).

Henri Matisse “The Guitarist” (1903)

But above all, Matisse continued to paint and in 1904 presented his first solo exhibition in the galleries of Ambroise Vollard, an exhibition that continued without raising the slightest critic of support and admiration. Stubborn in continuing to practice more expressive painting, Matisse considered that his success would not be to renounce his new ideas of composition and colour, and continued to paint, study and check the possibilities of colours.

Henri Matisse “Road to Bois de Boulogne” (1902)

In this way he consolidated his definitive style, never forgetting the experience offered by the work of Signac and the neo-Impressionists, especially the theories that the neo-Impressionists practiced led him to a new expressive language, much more spontaneous than that of the pointillists and divisionists. This new creative style was already perfectly configured in “Luxury, Calm and Voluptuousness” (1904-1905), exhibited at the 1905 Independence Hall, which was bought by Signac, and “The Joy of Living” (1905-1906).

Henri Matisse “Luxury, Calm and Voluptuousness” (1904-1905)

Key to his career would be the above-mentioned “La alegría de vivir” (1905-1906) a scene from his imagination, entirely subjective, large format, which he had to paint in the new space he rented as a studio in a convent in the Rése des Sevres.

Henri Matisse “La alegría de vivir” (1905-1906)

In “La alegría de vivi”, oriental swimmers and odalisques, classic themes, were used to refer to a western environment. He defined the spaces by means of large areas of colours, whose composition was structured by means of the lines of the bodies, which direct the view of the spectator, marking the rhythm of the composition. In this work Matisse summarizes both his initial learning of the classical pictures of Poussin or Ingres, also of Gauguin and Japanese prints, as well as the Persian and Byzantine icons.

The work was shown in the Hall of Independents in 1906, produced a strong impression on the visitors and critics, who had not yet become accustomed to the violent brushstrokes of paint so intense in colours, above all, they had not met before a canvas of such large dimensions, “La alegría de vivi” measures 174 x 238 cm.

The presence of Matisse in the halls of 1905 and 1906 was more striking and resounding than that of the rest of his colleagues, although it was only because his works had been the most controversial “Portrait of Madame Matisse” (1904-1905), he was pointed out as leader and standard bearer of the new style.

Henri Matisse “Portrait of Madame Matisse” (1904-1905)

This recognition earned him a position for himself as one of the most interesting artists of the moment. The Fall Hall of 1906 was the culmination of the Fauvist demonstrations but also the beginning of their disappearance, each of the artists committed to the colourful enthusiasm begin to drift towards different styles. Thus, Matisse was changing his artistic language towards greater synthetism, retaking the schematics of African figures, the volumetric structures of Cézanne and even occasionally approaching some of the formal advances that Picasso was making.

Henri Matisse “Blue Nude” (1907)

The human figures, one of the elements of greater weight in their creations were densifying, almost always playing with spherical shapes that contributed that decorative touch that would never leave. This conception of the bodies was developed in “Blue Nude” (1907), where the sculptural heaviness of the figure was the most outstanding aspect, related to the volumes and forms of its bronzes, like Recumbent Nude I (1907), which investigates The contrast of mass with space.

Henri Matisse “Recumbent Nude I (1907)

Henri Matisse had self-confidence which was favored by the fact that his paintings began to sell well. Important collectors such as Gertrude, Sarah and Leo Stein, Claribel and Etta Cone, and Picasso were interested and acquired his work . He was especially supported by the Steins, who helped him set up his own academy and buy his most criticized works: “The Joy of Living” “Woman with Hat” and “Blue Nude.”

Henri Matisse “La Danza II” (1909-1910)

In 1909 he signed a contract with the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris, and at the moment he also began working with the Russian collector Sergey Shchunkin, who commissioned numerous works, between two of his best canvases, “La Danza II” (1909-1910) and “La Music” (1910).

Henri Matisse “La Music” (1910)

These two works follow that line of simple but strong composition produced by the presence of heavy volumes, but that would never be static because the drawing would be in charge of printing the movement. Volume and rhythm combined harmoniously in these canvases, as was also happening in his sculptures. “The serpentine” (1909) shows the body of a woman distorted and elongated so that the composition results in a rhythmic play of mass and movement.

When “La Danza” and “La Música” appeared in the Fall Hall of 1910, criticism pointed out that they were works in which the confusion of the artist manifested itself that he could not define his position between the archaic of the classic subjects and the deformation of The forms of expression. However, this “confusion” was the most innovative aspect of Matisse’s art, responsible for producing the best fruits.

In the portraits, Matisse also projected a fantastic and illusory world that allowed him to deform the figure of the model, whose personality was reflected only in complementary details such as vases with flowers, books, plates, etc., because the portrayed image was distorted and deformed by Colour and stroke.

It was clear that the source of creation was his imagination, the experiences and images that he was collecting everywhere he visited and then moved to the canvas in very personal interpretations. His works were influenced by the exhibition on Islamic art in Munich in 1910, or by the trips he made to southern Spain and Moscow the following year, or to Morocco shortly after, which fueled his fecund imagination.

This is how the decorative and colourful tradition of the Islamic and Persian miniatures, which on the other hand, were not new to him. The taste for the decorative and the love for the oriental objects he had inherited from his mother, fond of the porcelain. All these resources would also be used to support their reaction to Cubism, against whose rationality he would place works loaded with decoration, exoticism and colour.

Henri Matisse “Pink Studio” 1911

These ideas included works such as the “Pink Studio” (1911) “The Painters Family” (1911) and “The Red Room” (Harmoney in Red) (1908) of variegated compositions of elements and colours, or those made after returning from Morocco, “Window in Tangier” (1912), Puerta de la Kasbah (1912), Arab Café 1912), these works would be well received in Paris.

Henri Matisse “Window in Tangier” (1912)

Despite his struggle against Cubism, Matisse began a trajectory of a certain approach to that tendency in works like “Interior with goldfish” (1914), “La ventana” (1916), “Painter and model” (1917) and “Music lesson” (1917). With a composition that approaches the cubist collage, greater predominance of straight edges and multiplication of lines of perspective and points of view, but all in a very subtle way, merely outlined.

Henri Matisse “Music Lesson” 1917

In 1918, he abandoning the great scale that had reached his works and the decorativism to channel his creations to a more naturalistic style and again obsessed with the effect of light, which made him resume some technical aspects of Impressionism. Even in the summer of 1920, he moved to the coast of Normandy to paint as years before Monet had done. His painting was rejuvenated and renewed in a series of works from 1924, with interiors, flowers and birds.

These creative habits had, however, a counterbalance, the experience of working on the stage design of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Song of the Nightingale”, commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, who put in his way the expressive capacity of paper and cardboard cutouts.

Henri Matisse’s satin costume for a dancer in The Song of the Nightingale (1920)

The 1920s were very pleasing to the artist. Public institutions began to buy his works, retrospective exhibitions were organized in Copenhagen (1924), Berlin, Paris, Basel, New York (1931), and the first monograph on his figure was published in 1921. Although success and recognition were absolute, Matisse would not stop researching and working.

Matisse began experimenting with cut-outs

In the years that remained until his death, in 1954, he opens new paths of creation. By order of Albert Skira Matisse become the illustrator artist of the book “Poesías of Stéphane Mallarmé.” The book, in its entirety and understood as support, became for Matisse a place of experimentation. Matisse considered it as a painting where the graphic work should have brought balance to the blocks of text. He made prints with a classic concept of drawing in which the forms were built by schematic lines. The drawing had to emphasize above all for its cleanness and subtlety, with predominance of the white that would compensate the compact and black of the texts.

Matisse mural in the entrance hall of the Barnes Foundation

On the other hand, the commission he received from Albert C. Barnes to make a mural in the entrance hall of the Barnes Foundation, gave him the possibility to work on a larger scale than he had ever done before. In this panel he returned to the subject of dance. The place for its execution were three lunetos on the glass doors of access to the garden and that they were quite uncomfortable to decorate. In order to carry it out he used the method he had previously experimented with in ballet El canto del nightingale, which consisted of painting enormous figures with a charcoal placed on the end of a stick and pasting pieces of coloured paper, which he could move, remove, to obtain different visual impressions. The shapes and colours were finally adjusted when the roles were replaced by the definitive painting.

Between 1948 and 1951, Matisse worked on another large-scale work, the decoration of the Rosary Chapel in Vence, which allowed him to finish his career with a creation that combined colour, light, drawing and sculpture. The chapel acted as a celestial dome, illuminated by the light that came through the stained-glass windows, flooding with color the interior decorated only with ceramic lines.

Matisse decoration of the Rosary Chapel in Vence

In these years, drawing became an essential element of his work. The elaboration of his works generated an endless number of drawings and preparatory studies to which Matisse gave the same importance as the final piece.

In 1941, he was operated on for a tumor that left his legs paralyzed. Convalescence and the inability to move freely led him to develop the latest style of his career through drawing and trimming, which did not require much effort. Between 1941 and 1942 he made 158 drawings, Themes and variations. He illustrated books, Pasiphaé de Henri de Montherlant (Paris, 1944), Visions of Pierre Reverdy, Portuguese Letters of Marianna Alcaforado , Baudeleire ‘s Flowers of Evil , all of them in 1946.

Matisse “Jazz” 1947

This illustrative activity led him to even make his own book, “Jazz” In 1947, with brilliant colours stamped using paper templates that he cut and which became his biggest project using the technique of paper cuttings. The edition consisted of 20 illustrated sheets and handwritten text pages that collected memories, imaginary prints, references to paintings from previous years and current ones, all associated with the idea of ​​freedom and color intensity of the new method, which led to its maximum development when he began to cut the paper without marking a previous drawing and managed to overcome the conflict between line and colour he had raised on previous occasions.

Matisse proved throughout his career that he deserved to be considered the leader of the fauvistas. He was the only one who did not change his address. The three fundamental aspects of Fauvism, colour, space and light were always questioned. This explains why his figure had not ceased to grow in importance, nor to be admired, nor to represent a necessary reference in the art of the twentieth century.

“I take from nature what I need: an expression eloquent enough to suggest what I have thought. I thoroughly combine all the effects, the balance in description and color, but this condensation to which everything concurs, including the dimensions of the fabric, is not achieved in the first attempt. It is a long task of reflection, of amalgamation. I have to paint a woman’s body; In the first place, I reflect the form in myself, the endowment of grace, of primor, and still have to endow it with something more. I condemn the meaning of this body, looking for its essential lines. The charm will be less obvious at first glance, but it has to crystallize in the new image that I have obtained and that will have a broader meaning, of greater human fullness. ”

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