Matisse began to study law and, during an illness in 1890, took up painting, thereafter forsaking law entirely. He studied first with the academician Bouguereau and then with Gustave Moreau, in whose studio he met many painters who would soon attain prominence with him in the fauvist movement. Matisse's earliest work was exceptionally mature. He explored impressionism (e.g., La Desserte, 1897; Niarchos Coll., Athens) and, coming into contact with the theories of Paul Signac, drew upon neoimpressionist styles as in Luxe, calme et volupté (c.1905; private coll.). To learn aspects of composition he made variations on the works of the old masters in the Louvre, a practice he continued for many years (e.g., Variation on a Still Life by de Heem, c.1915; S. A. Marx Coll., Chicago).
Matisse began exhibiting in 1896 and at first was unsuccessful. In 1905 at Collioure, a Mediterranean village, he began using pure primary color as a significant structural element. His portrait of Mme Matisse, known as The Green Line (1905; State Mus., Copenhagen), exemplifies this abstract, intellectual use of color. In 1905 he exhibited at the Salon d'automne with the group of artists called fauves [Fr.,=wild beasts], so named for their remarkable, exuberant use of color. Matisse became a leader of fauvism, delighting in vivid color for its sensual and decorative value.
After the demise of fauvism Matisse continued to use color to communicate his joy in bold pattern and striking ornament, e.g., in The Moorish Screen (1921; Phila. Mus. of Art) and Lady in Blue (1937; private coll.). He experimented frequently with different sorts of expressive abstraction, as in The Blue Nude (1907; Baltimore Mus. of Art), Mlle Landsberg (1914; Phila. Mus. of Art), and The Piano Lesson (1916; Mus. of Modern Art, New York City), but he rejected cubism in order to develop his own ideas. In 1908 Matisse wrote out his theories for La Grande Revue; he wished, if possible, to paint a visual representation of his emotional reaction to a subject rather than its realistic appearance. By 1909 the artist's fame was worldwide.
Matisse's early sculpture reveals an interest in African art and in Rodin. Matisse designed for the ballet (1920, 1938) and illustrated works by Mallarmé (1932) and Baudelaire (1944), among many others. His superbly simple line drawings rank among the greatest works of graphic art of the 20th cent. In his last years he also made brilliant paper cutouts and stencils (e.g., Jazz, 1947; Philadelphia Mus. of Art), as gay and as strong in design as his earliest work. When he was nearly 80, Matisse volunteered to decorate the Dominican nuns' chapel at Vence, France. His fresh and joyous works for the chapel include black-and-white murals, semiabstract stained-glass windows, a stone altar, a bronze cross, carved doors, and an array of colorful vestments. His work on the chapel was completed in 1951, and Matisse declared it his masterpiece.
The largest collections of Matisse's works are in the Baltimore Museum of Art; Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Modern Art, New York City; and the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
See catalog from his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City (1992); biography by H. Spurling (2 vol., 1998–2005); J. Russell, Matisse: Father and Son (1999); studies by J. Guichard-Meili (tr. 1967) and L. Aragon (2 vol., tr. 1972).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: European Art, 1600 to the Present: Biographies