Sunday 4 November 2012


“The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.” - John Ruskin

For Art Sunday today, Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse (born December 31, 1869, Le Cateau, Picardy, France and died November 3, 1954, Nice). Matisse is the artist often regarded as the most important French painter of the 20th century. He was the leader of the Fauvist movement, which developed around 1900, and as its champion, he pursued the expressiveness of colour throughout his career. His subjects were largely domestic or figurative, and a distinct Mediterranean verve presides in the treatment. His use of flat colour and rich ornament make for highly decorative canvasses that evoke strong emotional responses in the viewer.

The artist’s parents were in the grain business, and Matisse displayed little interest in art until he was 20 years old. From 1882 to 1887 he attended the secondary school in Saint-Quentin; after a year of legal studies in Paris, he returned to Saint-Quentin and became a clerk in a law office. He began to sit in on an early-morning drawing class at the local École Quentin-Latour, and, in 1890, while recovering from a severe attack of appendicitis, he began to paint, at first copying the coloured reproductions in a box of oils his mother had given him. Soon he was decorating the home of his grandparents at Le Cateau. In 1891 he abandoned the law and returned to Paris to become a professional artist.

Although at this period he had, in his own words, “hair like Absalom’s”, he was far from being a typical Left Bank bohemian art student. “I plunged head down into work,” he said later, “on the principle I had heard, all my young life, expressed by the words ‘Hurry up!' Like my parents, I hurried up in my work, pushed by I don’t know what, by a force which today I perceive as being foreign to my life as a normal man”. This 19th-century gospel of work, derived from a middle class, northern French upbringing, was to mark his entire career, and soon it was accompanied by a thoroughly bourgeois appearance—gold-rimmed spectacles; short, carefully trimmed beard; plump, feline body; conservative clothes—which was odd for a leading member of the Parisian avant-garde.

He studied at the Academie Julian under the traditionalist Bouguereau and Moreau. Inspired by the works of the time, namely by post-impressionism, he always focussed on the importance and ability of colour to speak to the painter and the viewer. He often used pointillist techniques at the turn of the century. Initially he painted still-lifes and landscapes in a traditional style, at which he achieved reasonable proficiency. Matisse was influenced by the works of earlier masters such as Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Nicolas Poussin, and Antoine Watteau, as well as by modern artists such as Édouard Manet, and by Japanese art. Chardin was one of Matisse’s most admired painters; as an art student he made copies of four Chardin paintings in the Louvre.

He then moved to the French Riviera to work with a group of artists who became known as the Fauves or Wild Beasts for their flat, distinct work using symmetric lines that were to be expressive and non-detailed. Following this stint, he moved to Montparnasse. He then moved and lived outside of Nice so he could be close to the Riviera. Throughout World War I, he lived there painting.

After the war, his paintings revealed a return to something concrete, subdued, and physical in nature – something quite common in artistic circles of the day as artists also searched for answers to a war that had taken so much and so many.

It was Matisse’s travels to Spain, Germany, Russia, and Africa that would affect the painter’s work. By 1920, he had become a world-renowned artist and was commissioned by several prominent figures to complete murals, sculptures, and to give presentations. In his art, he fought against technology and vied for a return to something simpler and more expressive. Islamic art in particular influenced him to concentrate on the decorative elements rather than human figures.

During the last years of his life, he was a rather solitary man who was separated from his wife and whose grownup children were scattered. After 1941, when he underwent an operation for an intestinal disorder, he was bedridden much of the time; after 1950 he suffered from asthma and heart trouble. Cared for by a faithful Russian woman who had been one of his models in the early 1930s, he lived in a large studio in the Old Hôtel Regina at Cimiez, overlooking Nice. Often he was obliged to work on his mural-sized projects from a studio bed with the aid of a crayon attached to a long pole. But there are no signs of flagging creative energy or of sadness in his final achievements; on the contrary, these works are among the most daring, most accomplished, and most serenely optimistic of his entire career.

Matisse’s art has a vital force and persists into a personal world into which Matisse draws all his viewers. He was always attracted to the beautiful and produced some of the most powerful beauty ever painted. He was a man of anxious temperament, a man of peasant fears, well concealed. Matisse coaxed his nervous tension into serenity. He spoke of his art as being like “a good armchair” – a ludicrously inept comparison for such a brilliant man – but his art was a respite, a reprieve, a comfort to him.

The painting above is “The Lute” and it was painted in 1943. Strong colours and vibrant decorative elements are the backdrop for the woman playing the lute. That such a painting was created during the world war can be seen as a gesture of resistance and quiet struggle. The artist is influenced by the carnage and the upheaval, the red in the canvas perhaps symbolising the bloody battlegrounds of the war. The woman playing the lute and the plants luxuriantly burgeoning forth are a quiet confidence that humanity will survive and art will redeem the atrocities of the war. Having been through the horrors of WWI, Matisse could only look on WWII with forbearance and knew that once again the human spirit would overcome the savagery.

1 comment:

  1. Although Islamic art was undoubetly an influence, I sometimes wonder if the rich texture of his paintings also echoes his Flemish origins and the great tapestries Flemish culture was famous for.