A Contemplative Look At Henri Matisse Essay

, Research Paper

Henri +mile Beno t Matisse was a French artist, leader of the Fauve group, regarded as one of the great formative figures in 20th-century art, and a master of the use of color and form to convey emotional expression. Matisse was born in Le Cateau-Cambr sis in northern France on December 31, 1869. The son of a middle-class family, he studied and began to practice law. In 1890, however, while recovering slowly from an attack of appendicitis, he became intrigued by the practice of painting. Unlike so many great art masters, Matisse did not begin painting as a young prodigious artist. At first, Matisse s father had intended for his son to become a lawyer. His sensitive health throughout childhood made it impossible for Matisse to consider an industrial career. Both of his parents influenced Matisse s life greatly. He acquired artistic taste from his mother, herself somewhat of an artist, who often spent much of her time working on ceramics to decorate their home. Her talented artistic ability and her support of his art, influenced Henri Matisse in his decisions to pursue art as a career. His father on the other hand was more of the average hard working class. He was a local grain merchant. Matisse’s father perhaps played a less influential role, but never the less, a significant one. He was stricter and more disciplinary, but for the most part he also supported his son during times of financial and emotional hardship.

On a personal level, Matisse was a kindhearted and mischievous person. He never gave in to doubt, despair, or impossible ideas, although he often had good reason to do so. He never hesitated to explore new projects even though they seemed wrong or upsetting by other artists. For example, when Matisse was working on the Vence Chapel, Picasso was thoroughly upset that Matisse, an unbeliever, was undertaking a large-scale religious project. However, Matisse did not hesitate in any way to explore all possibilities. Matisse was the type of artist that didn t follow the rules, but one who created them. At a young age, Matisse was a tall, skinny, and solid looking individual. Into his later years, Matisse could often be seen wearing a tunic and supporting his weight with a cane. He had grown fat in his own age. Matisse was always equipped with a keen sense of humor, and he was not at all opposed to digging at his fellow artists to create mischief. However he might have endowed some of his friends with Shakespearean antics, its important to mention that Henri Matisse always had a warm place in his heart for friends and family. Many of his friends and colleagues included Pablo Picasso, Albert Marquet, and Georges Rouault s. He spent much of his life after 1941 in his large apartment, feverishly creating the art that he enjoyed for over 60 years.

Matisse s artistic career began when he left his home to journey into the studio of Gustave Moreau. For the next several years Matisse had to endure hard living, as well as try to attend his schooling. Eventually however, the young Matisse made himself a success around 1905. After this point, Matisse would enjoy great success and adoration throughout his life.

In 1892, having given up his law career, he went to Paris to study art formally. His first teachers were academically trained and relatively conservative; Matisse’s own early style was a conventional form of naturalism, and he made many copies after the old masters. . He joined Gustave Moreau’s studio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where he met Camoin, Manguin, Marquet and Jean Puy. Matisse experimented with several mediums and styles. He also studied more contemporary art, especially that of the impressionists, and he began to experiment, earning a reputation as a rebellious member of his studio classes. Matisse’s true artistic liberation, in terms of the use of color to render forms and organize spatial planes, came about first through the influence of the French painters Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne and the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, whose work he studied closely beginning about 1899. Then, in 1903 and 1904, Matisse encountered the pointillist painting of Henri Edmond Cross and Paul Signac. Cross and Signac were experimenting with juxtaposing small strokes (often dots or points ) of pure pigment to create the strongest visual vibration of intense color. Matisse adopted their technique and modified it repeatedly, using broader strokes. Matisse became Neo-Impressionistic, using both colors and shapes boldly. His later work emphasized the saturation of color and a simplicity of lines. In several works, he exhibits a plasticity of forms that complements his simplistic and saturated use of color. In some of his paintings, he transposed patterns which diminished the sense of space in his work. By 1905 he had produced some of the boldest color images ever created, including a striking picture of his wife, “Green Stripe.” The title refers to a broad stroke of brilliant green that defines Madame Matisse’s brow and nose. In the same year Matisse exhibited this and similar paintings along with works by his artist companions, including Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. Together, the group was dubbed Les Fauves (literally, the wild beasts ) because of the extremes of emotionalism in which they seemed to have indulged, their use of vivid colors, and their distortion of shapes.

While he was regarded as a leader of radicalism in the arts, Matisse was beginning to gain the approval of a number of influential critics and collectors, including the American expatriate writer Gertrude Stein and her family. Among the many important commissions he received was that of a Russian collector who requested mural panels illustrating dance and music (both completed in 1911; now in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg). Such broadly conceived themes ideally suited Matisse; they allowed him freedom of invention and play of form and expression. His images of dancers, and of human figures in general, convey expressive form first and the particular details of anatomy only secondarily. Matisse extended this principle into other fields; his bronze sculptures, like his drawings and works in several graphic media, reveal the same expressive contours seen in his paintings. Matisse sculpted in clay and ceramics as well. He also ran an art academy for three years. In 1908, Matisse published “Notes d’un Peintre” which embodied his personal statement as an artist. Although intellectually sophisticated, Matisse always emphasized the importance of instinct and intuition in the production of a work of art. He argued that an artist did not have complete control over color and form; instead, colors, shapes, and lines would come to dictate to the sensitive artist how they might be employed in relation to one another. He often emphasized his joy in abandoning himself to the play of the forces of color and design and he explained the rhythmic, but distorted, forms of many of his figures in terms of the working out of a total pictorial harmony. After World War I, however, his work began to deepen. He experimented with the effects of light and shadow, and he played around with ambiences and moods, slowly trying to perfect them. At this point, his paintings, perhaps best defined by “Odlaisque With Red Culottes”, can be compared to such artists as Eugene Delacroix and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. By the mid-1920s, Matisse was sick of this style as well. He tried to mold himself back into his prewar style, with attempts such as the painting, Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground. By the mid-1930s, he consciously began to reconceive the forms inside his paintings. Instead of traditional storytelling pictures, they became a gathering of signs within an abstract space. One of the earliest recorded mentionings of the meanings of signs was in January 1932, when he said, “a great painter is someone who finds personal and lasting signs that express in plastic terms the spirit of his vision.” Instead of pictures, his art began transforming itself in symbolic representations. This had not been true earlier in his career, when signs were supposedly fluid and constantly changing. In earlier works, the signs had to be constantly reinvented for each part of the painting. The picture was built up in terms of a balancing of signs. Each brushstroke had the potential of acting as a small sign that fit in with the grand scheme of the larger sign of the painting. But, as Matisse’s work matured, so did his conception of signs. During the 1930’s, he tried to stabilize and standardize his signs. We can see this development in the painting “Woman in Blue.” The painting, while starting very detailed and true to life, is gradually simplified. Detail was removed, as was a specific sense of viewpoint. The end result is a rather distilled ensemble of signs that are have an active role in justifying their surrounding space. Also, a larger focus was placed on plain areas of bright color, and to patterning in a rhythmic sense.

From the 1920s until his death, Matisse spent much time in the south of France, particularly Nice, painting local scenes with a thin, fluid application of bright color. In his old age, he was commissioned to design the decoration of the small Chapel of Saint-Marie du Rosaire at Vence (near Cannes), which he completed between 1947 and 1951. Often bedridden during his last years, he occupied himself with decoupage, creating works of brilliantly colored paper cutouts arranged casually, but with an unfailing eye for design, on a canvas surface. Eventually, this would lead into Matisse’s most distinctive style, and perhaps the one that he is best known for. It was the very end of the 1930’s that Matisse began using decoupage as a medium for expression of his creativity. He was able to push his previous ideas of de-naturalization even further than before. This was the final drift away from nature. His paper cut-outs were not based on direct perception at all, but rather on memory, imagery, and myth. From the start the cut paper was seen as abstract signs for objects, and not the objects themselves. With this, Matisse was able to eliminate the painting process, which allowed him to simultaneously draw and color. He no longer applied color to a surface, but put pre-colored cut papers on a surface. He referred to the process as drawing with scissors, “one movement linking line with color, contour with surface. The art of cutting, however, was only part of it. Matisse still set his forms within a context. This is the explanation for the discontinuity found in some of his cut paper works, because of the delay between the shaping of the form and its placement within the picture. Most of his works were experimented upon before he came out with the final product. Mechanically, he would put paste on the cut paper, then push it into place with a pin. If it worked, he would leave it, and if it didn’t, he would lift the paper back out and place it elsewhere. Also, every time the artist cut out a piece of paper, there was the negative image that he had cut it from. He was able to store these away, and even use some in later works.

Another difference between these works and some of his earlier ones is the sense of time. While in previous images, there was a sense of continuity in time, and passage of such, in these everything happened at once, and there was more of a discontinuity. Toward the end of his life, Matisse realized that this was the style he had been searching for. He gave new form to his older paintings. In “Amphitrite” of 1947, he brings back some of his older mythological ideas, and in “Christmas Eve,” he reverts to his later, floral and rythmic patterns. One can believe that the style that Matisse finally settled upon was the one that he was meant for, because as he had said earlier in his life he had, “an unconscious belief in a future life…some paradise where I shall paint frescoes…”

Matisse died in Nice on November 3, 1954. Unlike many artists, he was internationally popular during his lifetime, enjoying the favor of collectors, art critics, and the younger generation of artists. When Henri Matisse died, it came with no great surprise. Since 1941, Matisse experienced tremendous failing health, and had become bedridden often throughout many of his illnesses. His passing was deeply felt throughout the art community. He had been an important figure and idol to so many for so long. Even though it has been many years since the artist has died, his picture of dancers in celestial settings continue to baffle us and one often wonders if Matisse has ever really left us.


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