Henri Matisse Biography

Henry MatisseFor Henri Matisse, color meant everything. While artists of the past often attempted to express themselves through line, form and perspective, Matisse felt that painters could show more through the use of pure color. While many paintings by Matisse contain nude figures doing hedonistic dances of joy, the painter himself was far from a wild man. Rather, Matisse was a serious, scholarly figure who was always attempting to perfect his craft, experimenting with styles and formats along the way.

Youth and Education

Henri Matisse was born in 1869 in France. His home was small and modest, located in an underdeveloped part of the country. Matisse's father was a merchant. His mother, Anna, was an amateur painter of ceramics who also ran the paint department of his father's store. Young Henri would learn about the use of color at the hands of his mother, although he didn't express interest in art at a young age. Rather, the young Matisse went to school to become a lawyer and passed the bar exam in 1888. Matisse wasn't fond of practicing law, but was somewhat accomplished in the career.

Beginnings of Artistic Career

In 1889, Matisse fell ill with appendicitis and spent several weeks in bed, resting. His mother brought him paints and canvases to work on, to help him pass the time. While he'd never before shown much interest in painting, Matisse found that he was obsessed with the medium. He left his law career behind in 1891 and began to study art in earnest. He performed many still-life studies and learned how to paint landscapes. While Matisse was an accomplished painter of these formal styles, he preferred to experiment with color and line and was known for his rebellious nature in his classes. This willingness to stretch and grow would be a hallmark of later Matisse paintings. In 1896, Matisse exhibited five paintings in the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and two of his paintings were purchased. 


In 1897, Matisse would be introduced to Impressionist techniques, and his painting style would begin to grow and change. His paint choices became lighter in tone, and he began to avoid outlining characters. This tendency in artwork by Matisse would be further amplified in 1903, when the artist was exposed to the very small, very light brushstrokes of the Pointillist painters Henri Edmond Cross and Paul Signac. During this period, Matisse also began to study sculpture and clay modeling. These studies, which allowed him to see a figure in all three dimensions, would help the artist later in life; when he felt blocked by a painting, he would sculpt portions of this scenery to help him move forward.

In1898, Matisse met and married Amelie Noellie Parayre. She would figure heavily in the life of Matisse, as the two would be married for close to 40 years and she would model for many Henri Matisse paintings.


In 1905, Matisse incorporated the lessons he'd learned from the Impressionists and Pointillists and took his painting in a new direction. He flattened the planes, made the colors more bold and dark, elongated the human forms and used outlandish colors for skin tones. He began to incorporate native themes into his work, and celebrated nature and wild vegetation over controlled interiors. 

Woman with a Hat, Matisse's painting from 1905, was shown at the Salon d'Automne, along with many other images of what would be known as the Fauvist movement. This painting, which would give the movement its name, was singled out for special ridicule by the critics. Here, a woman is shown in a large hat, with bright squares of color on the wall behind her and on her clothing. Brush strokes are wild and free, big and bold. Her face is outlined in white and green, giving it a native, mask-like appearance. While the critics heaped scorn on the painting, it was purchased by Leo and Gertrude Stein. The artist had arrived on the big stage, and fame and wealth would follow.

While Matisse was controversial and well known in his home country of France, he was much more popular overseas. American and English collectors snapped up artwork by Matisse often faster than he could produce it. In 1910, a Russian textile collector Sergei Shchukin commissioned two paintings by Matisse to hang inside his home. The Matisse paintings The Dance and Music were produced for this commission. These were truly revolutionary works. The paintings both contain extremely flat planes of green grass and a blue sky, with no detail. The landscape is filled with bright red, nude characters. One set dances, one set plays music and sings. The Matisse dancers and musicians, warmly colored people on a cool-colored background, are a perfect expression of the Fauvist color palette, although the nudity of the characters, and their reckless abandonment in their tasks, made contemporary viewers slightly uncomfortable.


In 1939, Henri and Amelie were divorced after a dispute about a new housekeeper, Lydia Delectorskaya. After the divorce, Lydia would work as Matisse's record keeper. Her attention to detail would provide many details about the life of Matisse that would have otherwise been lost to history.

Matisse began to struggle with his health, although he continued to stretch and grow as an artist. In the late 1940s, he began to experiment with collage. The Matisse "Jazz" book, published in 1947, contains swirling lines and brilliant color, all executed in cutouts and stencils. In 1953, Matisse would take this one step further and begin to experiment with bright blocks of color in collage form. The Matisse Snail painting contains only cutout paper and no paint at all. This seems to be the ultimate expression of the painter's love of color above all else.

Matisse died in 1954 after a long struggle with cancer. At the end of his life, the artist was confined to a wheelchair, but continued his work with collage and color. He left behind multiple letters, detailed daily diaries and a wealth of work. Matisse paintings continue to be cherished by collectors and art lovers all around the globe.