Henri Matisse wasn't really a beast of course, except in the real sense that he was a revolutionary and influential artist. Henry Matisse is best known for his expressively colourful painting style and his 'Henry Matisse cut outs' and for the nickname which was given to him - 'Fauve', literally meaning 'beast'. As a result the Fauvists were born.

Over six decades, artist Henri Matisse worked in various media, from painting to sculpture to printmaking. His subjects were nudes, figures in landscapes, portraits etc, but his use of brilliant colour and exaggerated form, made him one of the key artists of the last century.

Henri Matisse was born on December 31, 1869, in Bohain-en-Vermandois in northern France. At first Matisse worked as a legal clerk and then studied for a law degree in Paris in 1887. He also began taking a drawing classes in the mornings before he went to work. Then at the age of 21, Matisse began painting while recuperating from an illness, and an artist was born!

In 1891, Matisse moved to Paris for artistic training. He went to the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts. It was at these schools that Matisse was exposed to the Post-Impressionist work of Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh.

Matisse began to show his work in exhibitions in Paris in the mid-1890s, as well as the traditional Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Luckily, his work received some favourable attention. He then travelled to London and Corsica. In 1898, he married Amélie Parayre, and had three children.

By the turn of the 20th century, Matisse was coming under the progressive influences of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who painted in a 'Pointillist' style. He stopped exhibiting at the official Salon and started submitting his art to the more progressive Salon des Indépendants in 1901. Then In 1904, he had his first one-man show at the gallery of a dealer by the name of Ambroise Vollard.

Matisse had an important creative breakthrough in 1904/5. A visit to Saint-Tropez in France inspired him to paint bright canvases such as Luxe, calme et volupté (1904-05). Then in the summer in the Mediterranean village of Collioure, he produced his major works Open Window and Woman with a Hat in 1905. He showed both paintings in the 1905 Salon d’Automne exhibition in Paris. An art critic took note of the bold, images painted by certain artists and he nicknamed them “fauves,” or “wild beasts.” Matisse was henceforth known as Fauvist.

Painting in the style that came to be known as Fauvism, Matisse continued to pursue it throughout his career.

Matisse is regarded, along with Pablo Picasso, as one of the artists who defined the revolutionary leap forwards in the visual arts throughout the decades of the early twentieth century, in both painting and sculpture.

But as mentioned above, Henri Matisse didn’t set out to become an artist. He studied law, and actually passed his bar exam with distinction and even took a job as a law clerk in Paris. But it was a bout of ill health which changed the course of Matisse’s life and career forever. Actually it is thanks to his mother, Anna Heloise, that he embraced art as she brought him an assortment of art supplies to help him pass the time as he got over the appendicitis which had struck down. Consequently he fell in love with painting and took it up.

He came from a middle class background, his father being a grain merchant. Matisse's first art influence was painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau who taught at the Académie Julian. Unfortunately, after an unsuccessful year he left the academy and a fruitful apprenticeship with the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, who encouraged the artist’s more experimental tendencies.

Fortunately, Matisse had his fair share of patrons including the salon-world grande dame Gertrude Stein and sisters Claribel and Etta Cone. The Cone sisters assembled one of the most complete collections of his work in the world. 1906, at the home Stein shared with her partner Alice B Toklas, Matisse met Pablo Picasso. They would become both a lifelong friends and rivals. Matisse playfully referred to their dynamic as a “boxing match.”

Matisse was definitely one key leaders of Fauvism, the 20th century’s first real avant-garde art movement. Colour was assigned a more significant role in painting. As Matisse once said, 'When I put down a green, it doesn‘t mean grass; and when I put down a blue, it doesn't mean the sky.'

Between 1906 and 1917, Matisse lived and worked at the Hôtel Biron, a mansion in Paris which had apartments. Among his neighbours were Jean Cocteau, Isadora Duncan and Auguste Rodin! The mansion became now famed Musée Rodin.

For the public and some critics, Matisse's radical use of colour was outrageous, even offensive to some which seems ridiculous now. Reactions could be extreme. In 1913, when Blue Nude (1907) was sent to Chicago, students at the Art Institute burned a copy of the work. However, Matisse still had his friends and supporters. Matisse's most important devoted early patron was Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, the Russian textile magnate

In 1917 he moved to a suburb of Nice on the French Riviera where he lived throughout the 1920s, painting, mostly interiors and portraits which were well received by critics and collectors. Then, inspired by his two journeys to Morocco in 1912, he created dozens of odalisques which are paintings of Turkish chambermaids. As he himself said, “‘I do Odalisques in order to do nudes. But, how does one do a nude without being artificial? And then I do them because I know they exist."

It was in 1939, after 41 years of marriage Matisse and his wife, Amélie, separated because it appeared her husband was having an affair with her young companion, Lydia Delectorskaya, an orphaned Russian refugee. Matisse was not left alone, however. While living in Vence at the Villa Le Rêve in the 1940s, Matisse also had three cats Minouche, La Puce and Coussi whom he fed with pieces of brioche every day. Matisse also adored doves, which he purchased from traders along the Seine. The dove shape appears in many of his cut-out creations. In his last days, Matisse gifted his precious birds to Picasso who also admired the bird.

Towards the end, Matisse was confined to a wheelchair and painting became increasingly difficult physically. So he turned to his cut-out technique. He made shapes of paper with a scissor, that he arranged using a long stick in a method he called “painting with scissors.”

Music and dance were also themes in his early works such as Dance I (1909), commissioned by collector Sergei Shchukin for his Moscow home. In 1947 Matisse also published a book called Jazz, which juxtaposed his musings on life with images of his colourful cut-outs pieces. He died a few years later in November 1954.

As a footnote to his glittering career, Marguerite Matisse, the artist’s daughter from another relationship, became a leader of the French Resistance during World War II. She was captured by the Germans in 1944 and was on her way to Ravensbruck concentration camp by train as a prisoner, when Allied bombing disrupted the train carrying her and she managed to escape!


Henri Matisse Fauvism Pablo Picasso Fauve Marguerite Matisse Odalisque Musee Rodin Isadora Duncan Ivanovich Shchukin Gustav Moreau Gertrude Stein Claribel Cone Etta Cone Alice B Toklas avant-garde