If it weren’t for appendicitis, Henri Matisse might have lived a dull life as a lawyer and never discovered what he came to call “a kind of paradise.” It was during his convalescence at age 20 that Matisse’s mother brought him painting supplies to help him pass the time. His mother also suggested he break a few rules and let his work be guided by emotion. He instantly discovered the sheer joy of painting.
Matisse began his new life as a painter emulating the old masters of still-life and landscapes, and many of these early works are done in dark colors, giving them a gloomy feel. A good example is “The Dining Table,” completed in 1897.
He also studied contemporary art, where his happy and apolitical rebellion first became noticeable, and he didn’t hesitate to immerse himself in the techniques of many of the Post-Impressionists. He was inspired by Paul Cezanne, in particularly “The Bathers,” completed in 1891. He admired Georges Seurat’s Pointillism, and happened to become acquainted with Seurat’s friend Paul Signac, from whom he learned about Divisionism and Neo-Impressionism. He was further influenced by Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. One can see the influence of these masters in much of his work, such as “The Joy of Life,” “Open Window,” and “Dance II,” which was commissioned by his biggest patron, Russian industrialist Sergey Shchukin, who amassed a large collection of Matisse’s paintings.
Matisse’s work was solidly rooted in tradition, even though he was considered by society to be one of the “wild beasts,” a loose association of young artists— called “Fauvists” — who experimented with their own unique styles with total abandon. He rejected nothing, but used what he learned as a springboard to a new style, described as “modernism.” He preferred simplicity, distortion, pure yet limited colors, minimal details and unusual spatial treatments where he toyed with perspective (for example, “Harmony in Red,” 1908).
Heeding his mother’s advice, Matisse didn’t draw what he saw before he put it through a personal filter of feelings and emotions. He loved to create colorful patterns with — and within — his subjects and frequently used complementary colors together, such as orange/blue, pink/turquoise and red/green combinations, because doing so made the colors seem brighter and more vibrant. He varied his brush strokes from short and choppy to long and sweeping, and from vertical to horizontal, each suggesting a different mood. These elements are clearly seen in “Open Window,” 1905, one of the first Fauvist works.
In the last years of his life, when his health was failing, he turned from painting to “gouache decoupees,” which were his unique creations made from paper cutouts. His elegant series, “The Blue Nudes,” 1952, was considered an important innovation. He died in 1954 at age 84.