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I did not lead my life. It led me. - Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was born in the north of France on New Year’s Eve in 1869 shortly before the invasion of Prussian troops. Growing up, he took his first drawing lessons at Quentin de La Tour school, which specialized in training textile designers. After succeeding in his law studies in Paris in 1888, he returned to St-Quentin to clerk, all the while taking early morning art classes. A severe bout with appendicitis laid him low for almost a year, during which time he took up painting to while away the time. His consequent decision to become an artist greatly displeased his conservative merchant father, who relented only at the behest of his mother.
In 1892, he left the Académie Julian in favour of night courses at the École des Arts Décoratifs, spending his days copying the masters at the Louvre. By 1895, he was officially a student of Gustave Moreau at the École des Beaux-Arts. Gradually becoming aware of the Impressionists and ‘plein air’ painting through summer trips to Brittany, he began to explore for himself, experimenting first with impressionism and, later, with pointillism. Eventually, he developed a radical new approach to colour, using it in a structural rather than in a descriptive way. Breaking rank with his professor and classmates, he presented a number of bright landscapes at the Salon in 1897. He then left on an extended trip to marry Amélie Parayre, the mother of his four-year-old daughter, in Toulouse, travelling to London for his honeymoon and to Corsica for a further six months.
After participation in several group shows with friends like Rouault and Derain, and financial difficulties caused by a rapidly growing family (two sons in two years), Matisse finally had his first solo exhibition at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in 1904. He then spent the summer in St-Tropez with Signac developing his Neo-Impressionism and came back to Paris to participate in the famous Salon of 1905 where he and his radical cohorts received the derisive name Fauve from the critics shocked by the ‘wild’ way in which they handled their paints.
Despite critical rejection in France, Matisse soon found appreciative buyers among a large circle of foreign patrons, including the influential American art collectors, Gertrude Stein, and her brother Leo, who bought his work and introduced him to Picasso. His reputation was gathering force and by 1908, Matisse had his first shows in New York, Berlin and Moscow. Extended visits to Morocco in 1911 and 1912 influenced his attitude to light, colour and texture. Thirteen of his works were included in the sensational and seminal Armory Show of 1913 in New York, which introduced Modern Art to the United States.
During the WWI, he was not mobilized in spite of his request to be. In 1916, Matisse started going to Nice in the winter with his family, spending the summers in the northern provinces and Paris. After the war, accolades continued with major retrospectives in Copenhagen, Berlin, Basel, Paris and New York. He travelled extensively across Europe and America and even to Tahiti, all the while absorbing new influences and visual imagery.
Along with many of the finest artists of the era, Matisse was declared a degenerate artist and his works were confiscated from German collections in 1937. In 1938, he moved permanently to Cimiez near Nice in the south of France. Legally separated from Amélie in 1940 and suffering from poor health, he continued to work, moving to Vence in 1943 when his suburb took a direct hit in an aerial attack. His ex-wife was imprisoned and his daughter deported in 1944 for their resistance activities. However, they all returned to Paris in 1945 for a significant retrospective of Matisse’s work that was held in the Hall of Honour at the Salon d’Automne.
Back in Cimiez in the last years of his life, Matisse, a semi-invalid, created a series of works using shapes he cut from brightly coloured paper. He also completed his designs for a small Dominican chapel at Vence. He had begun this project by agreeing to do some stained glass windows. He then went on to do murals and ended up by designing nearly everything inside and out, including the vestments and liturgical objects. Today this chapel is one of the main tourist attractions of the French Riviera.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest French painters of the 20th century, Matisse also excelled at sculpture, illustration, graphics, and scenic design. Made a Commander of the Légion d’Honneur in 1947, he believed that an artist should not permit himself to become a prisoner of his style or reputation. His own works display tremendous versatility, ranging in style from austere and geometric to lush and decorative.
Henri Matisse died in November 1954 shortly before his 85th birthday and is buried at Cimiez.