Henri Emile Benoit Matisse quietly broke every rule in the book. He worked with the eyes of a student all his life. He explored and moved to different styles at different times of his life. At 81, he when his hands could no longer paint and he was wheelchair-bound he used scissors to cut shapes and forms to express himself. So diverse is his work that as one leafs through pictures of his work and reads about his other creative efforts like book printing, etchings and sculptures you can be forgiven for thinking you are viewing the works of various artists. The only common thread in all his creative works is that they were never done to comply with the tastes of the time they were made in but purely as creative expression.
Matisse’s students who came knowing of his ‘creative expression’ tag, often tried to express themselves in creative ways – paint blobs in some, paint splashes in others.
They were surprised then to see a staid looking man who stressed on rigour, practice and understanding of forms. Matisse’s works were built on strong foundations of understanding art. He strove to create a distillation of what he saw, to capture that essence of emotion. He noted that while the first layer of emotions was usually passionate, on further understanding and observation the same objects induced an emotion of serenity.
Matisse the child of a grain merchant father was born in a small agrarian town in North France. He studied law and worked as a clerk in a lawyer’s office. A bout of appendicitis made him bedridden. He used this time as an invalid to make drawings,making copies of Swiss landscapes. After he recovered he started to spend an hour before work on painting his original pieces. In 1892 he left with the reluctant permission of his parents to study art in Paris.
He studied under Moreau who insisted Matisse copy the works at Louvre. Moreau advised Matisse to observe street life and paint everyday scenes. Matisse’s early works are in keeping with the accepted trends then, as is evinced by his painting Woman Reading (1894).
Matisse, however, was drawn o bright colours and before long started working with them. They were unfortunately not so well accepted. A period of financial difficulty ensued for Matisse and his family. In addition to this, his father cut his allowance. However, nothing could move Matisse from painting.
By 1905, Matisse was drawn further and further into a world of colour. He often used colours not natural to the object, such as green and red for humans. Matisse had started cementing his style, which consisted an arrangement of colours and shapes on a flat surface – a style that persisted with him till his last day and proved to be a very modern style.
Matisse and a few fellow artists were called the Fauves. These artists aggressively used colour. They were unafraid to express themselves in colour. The reaction to their exhibition was so strongly negative that the gallery where their paintings hung was called le cage des Fauves or the cage of wild beasts.
Matisse found patronage in the Stein family and later the Russians. This patronage sustained him. In response to being called a wild beast, Matisse painted a self- portrait in which he expressed his self-assertion as an artist who believed in his work, despite being labelled ‘insane’ and ‘barbaric’.
Matisse sought to be in the world of colour and form unencumbered with any pre-conceived notions. His paintings are not just paintings but his method of expressing the awe he felt in the beauty of creation around him. He expressed on canvas a condensation of sensations, where words were inadequate and only colour could best express what he felt.
His sculptures too followed this dictum, again shocking critics and art lovers alike. His modern work was finding a steady following among Americans as well. Through the Second World War, amidst bomb raids and death Matisse continued to paint, ever exploring and exhibiting paintings that seemed far removed from war.
His travels to Morocco and later Tahiti inspired some paintings, but it was in Nice that he found artistic satisfaction. He moved from luxurious, traditional work to line based, less detail and more colour-shape based paintings.
His famous ‘cuttings’ captured his emotions more aptly than ever before. This was known as Gouache Decoupage- pre -painted colour cut-outs that were arranged as a collage as instructed by Matisse. His paintings with scissors have shapes that are suggestive rather than exact representations. He was ‘cutting in colour’ and in his opinion was how he finally was able to best express himself directly.
If you’d like to read more about Matisse, a good place to start is Douglas Mannering’s excellent biography The Art of Matisse. Younger readers Henri’s Scissors and The Iridescence of Birds are wonderful books for children to learn about Henri Matisse.