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Henri Matisse

Born in Picardy in France on the last day of 1869, Henri Matisse was brought into a world of color. His mother and father were weavers and their use of color in their work would influence the artist throughout his life. In 1887 he studied law in Paris and then got a job as a law clerk. However, a stomach ailment laid him low in 1890 and he took up painting to pass the time. He found that he enjoyed it so much that he would make a career of it.

Studying under various masters and in schools, he meticulously acquired a thorough knowledge of his new "trade". In 1898 he married. Nevertheless, he continued to work assiduously, becoming almost obsessed by his work. He soon gained a following and became one of the leading lights of the Fauve School which emphasized bright colors and contrast. Matisse was criticized by contemporary artists (except Picasso, whom he befriended) for the generally pleasant and happy tone of his work. Many Frenchmen at the time believed that hidden pain and struggle had to be revealed in art and that politics should be a motivating force.

Matisse also refrained from living a "Bohemian" lifestyle, which seemed to be de rigueur for well-known persons of the period. His contemporaries took his restraint as an aloof rebuke of their own habits and work. Yet, Matisse remained popular with the masses and even acquired some wealthy sponsors in the form of two Russian businessmen. Sergei Shchukin commissioned one of Matisse's best known works, The Dance. He took these paintings with him to Russia. When Lenin came to power after the Revolution, he confiscated Shchukin's collection of Matisse paintings because they so clearly demonstrated the "decadence and corruption" of capitalism.

Matisse further angered leftists by designing a stained-glass window for the Chapel of the Rosary in Venice. But he seemed unfazed by leftist assaults on his work. About his politics, he said, "I'm ready to paint as many frescoes as you like, only remember, it's no good asking me to paint hammers and sickles all day long."

As he aged, Matisse began to have difficulty standing at an easel. He began doing books design and illustrations. Although finally bedridden, he continued to work. He found the energy and interest to do brush drawings and paper cutouts. At the time he was thought to have become "eccentric". But today this period of creativity is considered by many critics to have been brilliant and productive.

Henri Matisse died in 1954. He is recognized today as "the" master of color and ranks with Picasso as one of the two great artists of the 20th Century.


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