Henri Matisse wanted to be a lawyer, but while at school he was struck with appendicitis and he began to paint as he convalesced. He later said that it was in painting that he had discovered “a kind of paradise”.
Crockery On A Table, 1900.
He gave up law school, deeply disappointing his father, and enrolled at the Académie Julian to study. Initially he painted still-lifes and landscapes in the traditional Flemish style, but in the late 1890s he visited the painter John Peter Russell, and Russell introduced him to Impressionism.
Henri Matisse’s style changed completely, and he would later say “Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained colour theory to me.” I’d say, given the marked difference between his early works, and those completed after visiting Russell, that we owe Russell a debt of gratitude. Matisse’s early works were elegant, but simple; it’s only his later works that seem to inspire thought and study and conversation.
The Moroccans, 1916
Matisse’s works approach abstraction, often distilling his images from photo-realistic paintings into shapes, shadows, and colors evocative of the human form. Matisse favored suggestion over detail, constructing bodies and objects from the sum of several carefully placed lines. The result of this ambiguity is an anonymity suitable to the indiscriminate killings Matisse would have witnessed during this time.
Greta Prozor, 1916.
As a 44 year old with a weak heart, Matisse was barred from serving in the French army in 1914. While contemporaries Georges Braque and Andre Derain fought in the war, Matisse remained at home, painting: “I sometimes emerge victorious, but winded,” he said, likening his artistic endeavors to a conquerable battlefield. He began to use sober blacks and grays increasingly, which may be reflective of the deterioration of Paris he witnessed and the gravity of his familial circumstances.
Bowl of Oranges, 1916.
Even Matisse’s neutral tones, however, are sumptuous and textured, a feat he achieved by layering, scoring, scuffing, and scratching his canvases, painting in a manner comparable to sculpture.
Goldfish and Palette, 1915.
Despite the reductionist nature of Matisse’s work from 1913-1917, x-rays have revealed up to seven layers of nearly completed paintings under his finalized canvases, indicating a purposeful frugality. The uniqueness of this period for Matisse is evidenced by his return to naturalism and conventionalism at the end of the war, when the artist relocated to Nice, France.
The Italian Woman, 1916.
While Matisse painted familiar objects, it is his style that became structural in the face of chaotic war. Late in life, he told an interviewer, “Despite the pressure from certain conventional quarters, the war did not influence the subject matter of painting, for we were no longer painting subjects.”