Henri Matisse

By Deena Sherman

Henri Matisse is known as one of the greatest 20th century artists, rivaled only perhaps by Picasso, and there is a good reason why.

Look at his painting Two Figures Reclining in a Landscape, 1921. It draws the viewer in and invites one to lie down near the two women. Matisse used bold brushstrokes and vibrant shades of green and red to make this work inviting. The two faceless women look completely relaxed, one on her back, with her hands supporting her head, and the other on her side with a parasol behind her. A clear relationship between the two exists.

Matisse believed the use of colors was as important to a painting as its content. In fact, he was the leader of the Fauves (1904-1908), a group of artists whose style emphasized intense color and vigorous brushstrokes. Much of his work, such as this one, emphasized movement and mood and was devoid of detail.

Reclining Nude in a White Dress is different than Two Figures Reclining in a Landscape in that more detail is displayed. The colors do not converge the way they do in Two Figures and the brushstrokes are also not as prominent. Why Matisse called this “Nude Woman” is unclear, since nude she clearly is not. The splash of red color and the somewhat unclear potted plant at the subject’s side, rather than the slightly strange position, circumstances and attire of the subject, is what attracted me to this work.

Matisse has been criticized for work that is “too pleasant” and devoid of reality or psychological conflicts at times. But this was Matisse’s stated aim – he wanted to bring tranquility to the onlooker. In his Notes of a Painter in 1908, he said he hoped to create “an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, … a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

Henri Matisse was born at Le Cateau-Cambrésis in the North of France on December 31, 1869. His parents, Emile Matisse and Héloise Gérars, owned a general where they sold household goods and seed. Henri studied law in Paris in 1887 and 1988. The following year he was employed as a clerk in a solicitor’s office.

During his one-year confinement to bed, from an appendicitis operation, he began painting. It was a year at peace and a good state of mind for Matisse to start what became his new career.

“I was free, solitary, quiet,” he said later, “whereas I had always been rather anxious and bored in the various things I was forced to do.”

For the next ten years, Matisse studied art under various masters. It was the era of impressionism. The vitality of a subject was captured through observing the play of colored light and shadow upon it. Artists painted quickly, using short brush strokes and unmixed colors.

In 1894, Matisse fathered a daughter, Marguerite, with Amélie Paraere, whom he married in 1898. Two sons followed. Finances were tight, so the family stayed with Matisse’s parents.

Matisse’s talent had come into its own by 1910, and he exhibited successfully, at times causing controversy with his style. During World War I, he lived in both Paris and Nice and in the Second World War Matisse lived in the south of France – Bordeaux, Ciboure and Nice. Matisse was diagnosed with duodenal cancer and was permanently confined to a wheelchair in 1941. He died November 3, 1954, but he will continue living through his work.

Encyclopaedia Britannica