Henri Émile Benoît Matisse [1869-1954] French painter, sculptor, draughtsman, printmaker and designer, one of the most illustrious artists of the 20th century. From the 1920s he enjoyed an international reputation alongside Picasso as the foremost painter of his time. Unlike Picasso, he was a late starter in art, and he was not quite so prolific or versatile, but for sensitivity of line and beauty of colouring he stands unrivalled among his contemporaries.
Matisse was born in Le Cateau, Picardy, the son of a shopkeeper (originally a draper, he became a grain merchant). To alleviate the boredom of life as a solicitor's clerk, Matisse attended drawing classes and he took up painting in 1890 when he was convalescing from an appendicitis operation. He later recalled that ‘When I started to paint I felt transported into a kind of paradise’, and in 1891 he abandoned his legal career to study art in Paris. He attended various schools, including the Académie Julian, the École des Arts Décoratifs, the École des Beaux-Arts, and (briefly in 1899), the Académie Carrière. His early pictures-mainly still-lifes and landscapes-were sober in colour, but in the summer of 1896, painting in Brittany, he began to adopt the lighter palette of the Impressionists. In 1899 he began to experiment with the Neo-Impressionist technique, which he still used five years later in one of his first major works-the celebrated Luxe, calme et volupté (1904–5, Musée d'Orsay, Paris), exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1905 and bought by Signac.
During the same years he had been painting with Marquet, had met Derain and through him Vlaminck, and in 1905, together with these and other friends from student days, he took part in the sensational exhibition at the Salon d'Automne that give birth to the name ‘Fauves’. In the same year (Matisse's annus mirabilis) he acquired his first important patrons-the expatriate Americans Gertrude, Leo, and Michael Stein-and they were soon followed by the great Russian collectors Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin. Previously he had struggled to earn a living, but their patronage freed him from financial worries and meant he could afford to travel (before the First World War he visited Germany, where his work was becoming influential among the Expressionists, Morocco, Russia, and Spain). His growing reputation also attracted many pupils to the art school he ran in Paris from 1907-1911. At the outbreak of the First World War he volunteered for military service, but he was rejected as too old at 44. For the next two years he often found it difficult to paint because of the anxieties of the war, but he was able to work at etching. He also took comfort in music (he was a good amateur violinist).
Matisse had met Picasso as early as 1906, and like him was excited by African sculpture at this time. During the second decade of the century he was influenced by Cubism (or rather responded to its challenge) and painted some of his most austere and formal pictures (Bathers by a River, 1916-17, Art Institute of Chicago,). In the 1920s, however, he returned to the luminous serenity that characterized his work for the rest of his long career. From 1916 he spent most of his winters on the Riviera, mainly at Nice. The luxuriously sensual works he painted there-odalisques, still-lifes of tropical fruits and flowers, and glowing interiors-are irradiated with the strong sun and rich colours of the south. His extraordinary ability to orchestrate rich colour has been well described by John Berger: ‘It is comparatively easy to achieve a certain unity in a picture by allowing one colour to dominate, or by muting all the colours. Matisse did neither. He clashed his colours together like cymbals and the effect was like a lullaby’.
During the 1930s Matisse began to travel widely again. In 1930, for example, he visited Pittsburgh to serve on the jury of the Carnegie International Competition, and while he was in the USA he met Dr Albert C. Barnes, who commissioned murals from him for the Barnes Foundation. By this time he was an international celebrity, with a stream of articles, books, and exhibitions devoted to him: in 1930-31 large exhibitions of his work were held in Basle, Berlin, New York, and Paris. In 1940 he settled permanently in the South of France to escape the German occupation of Paris. He lived mainly in the Hôtel Régina in Nice. Following two major operations for duodenal cancer in 1941, he was confined to bed or a wheelchair, but he worked until the end of his life and one of his greatest and most original works was created in 1948–51, when he was in his 80s. This is the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, a gift of thanksgiving for a woman who had nursed him after his operations and then become a nun at the Dominican convent in Vence (Matisse lived there from 1943 to 1949).
He designed every detail of the chapel and its furnishings, including the priests' vestments. The stained-glass windows show his familiar love of colour, but the walls feature murals of pure white ceramic tiles decorated with black line drawings of inspired simplicity. Matisse was not a believer, but he created here one of the most moving religious buildings of the 20th century and expressed what he called ‘the nearly religious feeling I have for life’. Henri Cartier-Bresson, a lifelong admirer, had a different view. ‘Monsieur Matisse,’ he asked him, ‘you have never shown any serious interest in religion, and you are all the time painting these odalisques, these beautiful girls. Why didn't you decorate, instead of this Christian church, a Temple of Voluptuous Delight? Wouldn't that have suited your temperament better?’
In his bedridden final years Matisse also embarked on another kind of highly original work, using brightly coloured cut-out paper shapes (gouaches découpées) arranged into purely abstract patterns (L'Escargot, 1953, Tate) ‘The paper cut-out’, he said, ‘allows me to draw in the colour. It is a simplification for me. Instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it-the one modifying the other-I draw straight into the colour.’ The colours he used in his cutouts were often so strong that his doctor advised him to wear dark glasses. They must rank among the most joyous works ever created by an artist in old age. Unlike many of his great contemporaries, he did not generally attempt to express in his work the troubled times through which he lived. His concerns were aesthetic, not moral-‘to study separately each element of construction; drawing, colour, values, composition; to explore how these elements could be combined into a synthesis without diminishing the eloquence of any one of them by the presence of the others’.
In 1908 he wrote: ‘What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or disturbing subject-matter…like a comforting influence, a mental balm-something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue’, Jack Flam has argued that Matisse's words should not be taken to imply that his art was simply concerned with decoration or entertainment, but that he was seeking a kind of elevation of the spirit. It should also be remembered that in the context of 1908 Matisse would have been seeking to distance himself from both the quasi-scientific approach of the previous generation of Neo-Impressionists and the threat presented to his dominance by the more immediately challenging work of Picasso.
Matisse made sculptures at intervals throughout his career, the best known probably being the four bronzes called The Back I–IV (1909–c.1929, casts in the Tate and elsewhere), in which he progressively removed all detail, paring the figure down to massively simple forms. However, his most original work as a sculptor lies elsewhere. In the great series of five Heads of Jeanette made between 1910-1916 he explores, more intensely than any full-time sculptor of the period, the contradictions between an atmospheric modelling, which takes account of the transformation of the subject in memory and perception, and the sense of sculpture as a solid object. He also designed sets and costumes for Diaghilev and was a brilliant book illustrator. His work is represented in most important collections of modern art, the finest holdings being at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, the Hermitage, St Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. There are also Matisse museums in his birthplace, Le Cateau, and in Nice.
His son Pierre Matisse (1900-89) was an art dealer. He settled in the USA in 1925 and became an American citizen in 1942. The art historian William Rubin described him as ‘the great American dealer of the European Surrealist generation that came of age in the late 1920s and 1930s’. Among the many exhibitions he held in the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (opened 1932), the best known is probably ‘Artists in Exile’ (1942), which featured the work of many Surrealists who had moved from Europe to America to take refuge from the Second World War. He was particularly associated with Miró (he held 37 exhibitions of his work), and the other artists whose work he sold included Tanguy, a friend since schooldays. Matisse did not deal only in the work of the Surrealists, however: the artists he represented in his lengthy career included figures as varied as Balthus, Chagall, Giacometti and Riopelle. He also sold his father's work, although he never actually devoted an exhibition to it. He was married three times; his first wife, Alexina Sattler, later married Marcel Duchamp. /Copyright Oxford University Press
Matisse ⟨matìs⟩, Henri. - Pittore Francese (Le Cateau 1869 - Vence, Nizza, 1954). Tra i più importanti artisti del 20° sec., ha aperto la strada a un tipo d'arte che non si accontenta della fedele riproduzione della realtà; le sue forme sintetiche e libere e i suoi colori vibranti hanno influenzato generazioni di artisti in Europa ed in America. Tra le sue opere più felici vanno citate Lezione di piano (1915-16) e Interno a Nizza (1917); grafico e decoratore, di grande interesse sono anche le sue sculture, dalle prime, influenzate da A. Rodin e A. Maillol, alla serie Nudo di schiena (1909-30).
Compiuti studî di diritto, nel 1890 cominciò a interessarsi alla pittura; poi, trasferitosi a Parigi, frequentò l'École des arts décoratifs e l'Académie Julian; nel 1895 fu accolto nello studio di G. Moreau. All'inizio del nuovo secolo la sua ricerca da una parte seguì le tracce dell'arte di P. Cézanne, dall'altra fu attratta dal Neo-Impressionismo; ma già in Gioia di vivere (1906, Merion, Fondazione Barnes) le ampie campiture cromatiche mostrano una ricerca di linguaggio pittorico di rottura nei confronti della tradizione Post-Impressionista, che appare vicina alla ricerca di M. de Vlaminck, A. Marquet, A. Derain, G. Braque, cioè del gruppo di pittori conosciuti come i Fauves. Il colore sempre meno naturalistico, l'eliminazione della tridimensionalità e soprattutto la piena autonomia pittorica conferita all'immagine, sono le caratteristiche fondamentali della ricerca di M., già individuate con acutezza da G. Apollinaire (1907), che nello stesso tempo notava anche la raffinatezza e la preziosità della sua cultura.
Nel 1908 M. aprì una scuola e, nelle Notes d'un peintre (1908), chiarì il suo ideale dell'arte come equilibrio, purezza, "tranquillità". Intorno al 1913 M. risentì dell'esperienza cubista, nella costruzione di uno spazio più geometricamente inteso, pur mantenendo la sua originale preferenza per i rapporti cromatici accesi. Tra il 1915-1916 dipinse tra l'altro Lezione di piano (New York, Museum of modern art) e I Marocchini (ibid.).
Del 1917 è il già citato Interno a Nizza (Copenaghen, Statens Museum), che M. considerava tra i suoi quadri più felici. Da una stilizzazione sempre più spinta che riduce le forme a linee essenziali, i cui morbidi arabeschi s'incarnano nel colore, M. sembrò ritornare, nel decennio tra il 1920 e il 1930, a composizioni di tipo più tradizionale (periodo delle Odalische e degli Interni neri).
Dopo numerosi viaggi in Italia, Spagna, Germania, Gran Bretagna e Russia, nel 1931, dopo un soggiorno di tre mesi a Tahiti, M. si recò negli Stati Uniti, dove ebbe l'incarico della decorazione della Fondazione Barnes a Merion (52 metri di decorazione sul tema della danza; una prima versione, scartata per uno sbaglio di dimensioni, fu acquistata dal comune di Parigi). Stabilitosi a Vence nel 1939, si dedicò con particolare interesse alla grafica: illustrò, tra l'altro, Pasiphaé di H. de Montherlant (1944) e Les Fleurs du Mal di Ch. Baudelaire (1947) e pubblicò Jazz (1947), dove elaborò pensieri, immagini, improvvisazioni ritmiche e cromatiche, nelle quali appaiono i primi risultati della tecnica dei papiers découpés, cui si dedicò negli ultimi anni (La lumaca, 1953, Londra, Tate Gall.). Tra il 1949-1951 Matisse s'impegnò con particolare intensità nella decorazione e nell'arredo della cappella dei domenicani di Vence dedicata alla Vergine del Rosario. /Copyright Treccani, Enciclopedia Italiana