MATISSE Henri
French painter, sculptor, draughtsman, printmaker, and designer; born in 1869 at Le Cateau, in the north of France; died in Cimiez near Nice in 1954. Matisse's father was a grain merchant and his mother an amateur painter of some talent. After having finished his secondary studies he was employed as a clerk in a solicitor's office at SaintQuentin.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. His interest in art was awakened in 1890 during in illness, when he read a treatise on painting by Goupil. At this time he painted his first picture, a still life with a tobacco jar. He took evening courses at the Quentin de la Tour Municipal School and finally obtained his father's permission to go to work in Paris, first at the Académie Julian and then at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he enrolled in the studio of Gustave Moreau. There he made the acquaintance of Rouault, Camoin and, especially, Marquet, with whom he was to remain particularly friendly. His teacher urged him to study both Nature and the masters. Acting on this advice, he made many drawings from Nature and haunted the Louvre, where he executed numerous copies from Philippe de Champaigne, Poussin and Chardin. At this time his art was extremely conservative and traditional. In this painting, greys, so frequent in French painting from Louis Le Nain to Corot, are used with extreme subtlety, and re-create beautifully the dark, soft atmosphere of the room in which the craftsman is at work. It was natural, then, that Matisse should participate in the very official Salon of the National Society of Fine Arts, where he exhibited canvases such as La Desserte (The Sideboard) of 1898.
His discovery of Impressionism at this time was the beginning of his adventurous and triumphant career. The influence is apparent in the seascapes he painted in 1898 at Belle-Isle in Brittany, where Monet had already worked, as well as in the landscapes executed in Corsica and on the French Riviera. His palette grew brighter and more varied, the drawing became less conventional and revealed a more definite personality; an effort to portray the brilliance of light was evident. But he had already parted ways with the Impressionists: whereas they intended to transcribe the atmosphere that envelops objects, softens forms and veils colours, he chose to express a light that heightens tones, asserts contours and clarifies forms by simplifying them. The fact that he preferred the landscapes of Southern regions, more highly coloured, more regular, more constructed, to those of the Ilede-France and Normandy, is in itself significant. Little wonder, then, that he should have undergone successively the influence of various painters who, while connected with Impressionism, had tried to go beyond it: Cézanne, on the one hand, and the Neo-Impressionists on the other. The influence of Cézanne, one of whose Bathers he purchased and later gave to the Petit Palais, is apparent in a series of pictures, especially still lifes and nudes ( Models in thy Studio sequence, 1900; Carmelina, 1903). Here the colour is intense but rather dark, the drawing vigorous, the form built up with broadly simplified planes. On the other hand, he drew his inspiration from the Neo-Impressionists in various Parisian landscapes and in a few compositions which he painted according to the Divisionist technique. It is characteristic that Signac should have bought one of these, Luxury, Calm and Voluptuousness, 1903.
Fortified by his experiments and research, which showed his methodical but wilful genius, he was ready for the peremptory assertion of his personality and art that would be shown in his Fauvist manner, about 1905-1908. In contrast to Vlaminck, Fauvism for Matisse was less a question of heightened sensation than an attempt to reduce the whole art of painting to colour and a few other fundamental elements, chiefly line and rhythm, the necessary and sufficient resources with which the painter can realite himself. 'You are going to simplify painting', Gustave Moreau had predicted to him, and in fact Matisse jettisoned all the impediments which since the sixteenth century had encumbered its course, to rediscover the ease and mobility of the traveller without luggage, ready for any adventure. No more 'passages', those pictorial equivalents of the transition that poets and novelists were giving up at the same time: colours were laid on openly one against the other, and frequently collided, if the combination served to heighten them; but if this was to be avoided, a thick black line around the forms separated them or the white of the canvas was left visible. 'Values' were also abandoned: instead of diversifying the tones by a minute mixture of light and shadow, Matisse unified them and spread them out in large sheets, finding other means to express light and model form. These, or rather this, other means was colour and relations of colours. In fact, by choosing his tones and establishing relations between them, the painter transcribed the colour of the object (itself a synthesis of the local tone in combination with light), the form of the object, the luminosity of space and depth. Refusing the techniques of trompe-l'œil and perspective -- for he did not want to hollow out the picture and conceal its nature as a plane surface -- he resorted to oppositions of tones: behind the coloured figures, for example, he spread out zones of various coloure which, in their relation to one another and to the figures themselves, give an impresoon of space, a space full of light, without hiding the fact that the picture is a plane covered with colours. This was a rediscovery (unpremeditated, in fact, not an imitation) of the solution of the Romanesque painters; the stripes of various colours that can be seen, for example, in the frescoes of the Oberzell and the Niederzell on Lake Constance find their equivalent in those which Matisse introduced into his picture Luxury, Calm and Voluptuosness ( 1907), the only difference being that he used them with a representational intent, making them suggest the beach, the sea, the mountains, the sky. Rhythm and the arabesque, toward which his line often tended, were, along with colour, Matisse's fundamental resources during his Fauvist period. That time witnessed in abundant flowering of masterpie, such as the View of Notre-Dame, La Joie de Vivre ( 1905), The Open Window ( 1905). The Red Carpets( 1906, Grenoble Museum), The Young Sailor ( 1906), The Sideboard ( 1909), The Manila Shawl.
But the influence of Cézanne was beginning to be felt more and more strongly by young painters: first Derain, then Dufy, Vlamick and Friezz developed a feeling for construction; Braque went as far as Cubism, soon followed by Picasso and then Léger, Gris, Lhote and La Fresnaye. Matisse, who had been in touch with Picasso, was not the last to give up Fauvism (a trip to Morocco in 1911-1912 particularly accelerating his evolution) to practise a kind of painting that was, if not Cubist, at least so Cézannesque that it sometimes verged on Cubism. The Three Sister of the Paul Guillaume collection, The Dance and Music ( 1909 and 1910) in the Museum of Western Art in Moscow, The Red Studio ( 1914), Goldfish ( 1914), The Moroccans ( 1912), and finally the series of Studies on the Quai-Saint-Michel, of which the Museum of Modern Art in Paris possesses one of the finest examples ( The Painter and His Model, 1914), reveal the painter given over to an austere chromatism in which blacks, greys, ochres, and forms harder and stricter than those of the Fauvist manner predominate. The sinuous arabesques have given way to straight lines that break into segments and assemble in right or acute angles. The rhythms are jerky, syncopated, and elliptical. The transcription of Nature is still bolderand the interpretation of space more radical. The art of Matisse adopted a slightly contorted look, revealing an inner tension in the painter, the tension that brings about new investigations and the need to transcend oneself.
Every period of tension is necessarily followed by a period of release. A sequence of favourable circumstances, just after the First World War, brought about this release in the an of Matisse: the euphoria of victory, the discovery of Mediterranean nature (he then established himself at Nice, which became his adopted home), and finally success. For about ten years he had undoubtedly taken on the appearance of the head of a school and had seen a flock of pupils, particularly foreigners, hurrying to the Academy that he had founded in Paris at the former Couvent des Oiseaux. But it was a success felt only by the few. After 1919, however, he won international and universal renown. It is not difficult to understand, therefore, why he should have drifted toward a more amiable art, especially since the same development can be observed at that time in nearly all the painters, from Dufy and Derain to Braque and Picasso. A return to bright colours, less intense and bold than in the days of Fauvism, but fresher and sprucer, in which reds play a leading part; a return to a flowing line of enveloping flexibility, an introduction of very light modelling in the figure, which does not break the unity of the surface; recourse, to obtain a decorative effect, to certain artifices, such as the representation of hangings with large designs, of tiles, flowered textiles, and Oriental rugs in the background: it is by these various characteristics that the manner in which Matisse worked between 1919 and 1927 can be defined. His favourite theme was the Odalisque. Two words describe the works of this period adequately: ease and grace -- ease at having mastered the craft to the point of such assurance that he could be allowed to rest, and grace in the creation of a universe of children, young women, precious fabrics, flowers, leisure, luxury, and light. Matisse enjoyed his success for a while and, as a result, was able to create abundantly, without effort, without anxiety. But he soon grew tired of this oasis of facility and, as early as 1928, he resumed his investigations and again moved toward grandeur and strength. In the Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background of 1928 ( Museum of Modern Art, Paris) one sees straight lines meeting at right angles, lines broken into short segments, a hard and powerful form whose bold synthesis bears witness to daring invention, majestic construction (echoed the same year in The Sideboard) and the clearly stated will to make things severe, grandiose, and new. But this time Matisse did not renounce the characteristics of his former manner: richness of the palette, suppleness of arabesques, decorative sumptuousness, and glorification of the sweetness of life.
The synthesis of the complementary tendencies of his genius thus achieved was afterward evident in all his works, particularly after the execution of a vast decoration on the theme of The Dance at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania ( 1931-1933), had obliged him to summon up all his resources and take his bearings. For him this was an opportunity to set out again more resolutely than ever. He demanded more of colour than he ever had in the past, either by risking tonal harmonies of unheard-of violence ( The Rumanian Blouse, 1940) or by establishing a chromatic unity, often red, across his whole canvas, as in the Still Life with a Magnolia of 1941, or in The Large Interior in Red of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris ( 1948), or even in a successful attempt to make black a colour radiating light and almost insupportably intense ( Bed Jacket on a Black Background, 1938). The drawing became both more flexible and more rigorous and synthetic, more abstract and suggestive and, finally, so bold that it shrank before no interpretation of Nature and the human figure ( Asia, 1944; The English Girl, 1947). The form, flat once more, had none the less great power ( The Plum Branch, 1948), and this power is due as much to the line surrounding the form and the tones that suggest its mass as to the rhythms that animate it with a candid and imposing simplicity ( Girl in a White Dress, 1941). The universe of Matisse, composed invariably of young and beautiful women, exotic plants, flowers and fruits, birds, luxurious objects, idleness and sun, testifies to an ever bolder daring of imagination, the fruit of liberty acquired by the painter through mastery of his art and his constant efforts to renew, surpass and enrich himself, always by simplifying himself more radically. If the starting-point for this final synthesis was the decoration of the Barnes Foundation, its climax was the chapel of the Convent of Dominican Nuns at Vence, finished in 1950. There Matisse not only said his last word as a painter, a painter who renounced colour to content himself with white and an ochre verging on black, but also brought to a conclusion the investigations that he had pursued for a long time in the other arts.
One cannot pass over in silence Matisse's activity in fields other than painting: as an engraver he executed a great number of plates and illustrated ten books or so, from the Poems of Mallarmé ( 1932) to the Poems of Charles d'Orléans ( 1950), by way of the Amours of Ronsard ( 1948) and The Letters of a Portuguese Nun ( 1946). As a sculptor Matisse has to his credit an imposing number of works, which constitute one of the most important monuments of contemporary sculpture, both on account of their intrinsic beauty and because of the lesson of invention and renewal that they provide. Finally, a special place belongs to the cutouts, which occupied the artist a great deal in his last years, and with which he created masterpieces like The Negro Boxer ( 1947) and The Sadness of the King ( 1952). Never, indeed, had he manifested such imagination of design; the scissors seem to have allowed him to bestow upon colour an inventive composition that surpassed in daring the chromatism of his former work. A triumph of arabesque and pure colour, his papiers collés are perhaps the supreme expression of his genius, while at the same time they represent his discovery of a new domain: there is, in fact, nothing in common between those he did and what the Cubists had produced in 1911-1914.
Important because of the diversity of his work and the new horizons he opened to art, Matisse is no less so because of the example of his powerful personality. In complete opposition to Picasso, he remained close to the tradition of French art and the French spirit, to the line of lucid and determined artists who created with 'clear and distinct' ideas deliberate, conscious and longthought-out works. It is not surprising, then, that a man of his stamp should have written some of the most pertinent observations on painting -- and notably on his own -- that have come from the pen of an artist (cf. his Notes of a Painter published in the Grande Revue, December 25th, 1908). What characterizes his art is first an admirable logic, as witnessed the care he always took to use his most varied tools and techniques in conformity with the requirements of their nature. If he drew with the pen, it being the nature of the pen to trace a precise and clean line, he made use of the line and the line only to express everything -- contour, form, light, even matter. If, on the other hand, he used charcoal, whose property is to crumble, and thus to permit the indication of values and shades, he executed drawings in which form grew exclusively out of the play of blacks, greys, and whites. Matisse was logical, lucid and determined. Nothing in his art was left to chance. He wrote: 'The composition that must reach expression alters with the surface to be covered. The artist who wants to transplant a composition from one canvas to a larger canvas must conceive it anew to preserve the expression.' Matisse made no brush stroke or pencil line that was not actuated by reflection. But nothing could be freer or more natural than his art, and these qualities it owes to his method of work. Having prepared for his important works by a great number of drawings, sketches, and studies, he often executed the final work in a single session, so as to preserve all the life of a sketch. Thus the movement of passion joined the equilibrium of thought to make this refined art a creation of inexhaustible richness and salutary complexity. Essentially modern, although rooted in the oldest French tradition, an echo of our present experiments and the fruit of an ancient culture as well as of a spirit that has survived, unchanged, alterations in aesthetics and civilization, the art of Matisse, a bridge between yesterday and tomorrow, constitutes one of the most important expressions of the painting of today, and will doubtless dominate and fertilize that of tomorrow.
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