Editorial Feature

Matisse and His Creative Process

Discover how the artist’s influences and techniques evolved during his career

Henri Matisse is widely regarded as the greatest colorist of the 20th century. The French artist used color as the foundation for his expressive, decorative and large-scale paintings. He once wrote that he sought to create art that would be “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair”. As a result, he embraced life-affirming subjects, making innovative use of color, line and form to create loose interpretations of light and space.

Portrait of Henri Matisse by Gjon Mili (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Though he was known as a draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor, Matisse is most remembered for his paintings. In his early pieces, created in the 1890s and early 1900s, Matisse’s work belonged to the Fauvism art movement. Fauvism was coined by the critic Louis Vauxcelles in 1905 after he saw the work of Matisse and André Derain in an exhibition in Paris, and translates as “the wild beasts”.

Fauvist paintings used bold, non-naturalistic colors, often applied directly from the tube in loose, spontaneous dabs. The forms of Fauvist subjects were also simplified to their most basic shapes and silhouettes, making their work appear quite abstract.

Henri Matisse in his studio in Nice by Gjon Mili (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
A View From Matisse's House by Dmitri Kessel (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

While many Fauvists left the movement to adopt more conventional styles, Henri Matisse continued to use the distinctive Fauvist traits of bright, emotive colors, simple shapes and painterly mark-making while continuing to seek out new influences by traveling the world.

During the early 1900s, Matisse travelled to various parts of the world to study, including Algeria where he learnt about African Art and Primitivism, Spain to spend two months studying Moorish art, and then Morocco. The effect on Matisse’s art from those adventures was a new boldness through his use of intense, unmodulated color, particularly the addition of black to his palette.

Henri Matisse by Dmitri Kessel (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Matisse Sketching Model Carmen Leschennes by Dmitri Kessel (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

As well as painting, Matisse was also an accomplished sculptor and more than half of his sculptures were completed between 1900 and 1910. He frequently worked in series, manipulating the form and simplifying it over the years. The three-dimensional medium allowed Matisse to twist his figure even more than he had in his paintings. Initially working with clay, Matisse cast each of his 82 sculptural works in editions of 10, typically in bronze.


Matisse Sculpting A Nude Figure by Dmitri Kessel (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

During the war, while the Nazis occupied France from 1940-1944, the work of Jewish artists was purged from all French museums and galleries. For Matisse to still be allowed to exhibit, he had to sign an oath assuring his “Aryan” status, as did many other non-Jewish artists in the country.

With shows being few and far between during those years, Matisse worked as a graphic artist and produced black-and-white illustrations for several books. He also began a collaboration with Mourlot Studios in Paris, which had made a name for itself by producing posters for the exhibitions of big name artists at the time. Working with the printmakers, Matisse produced over 100 original lithographs all of which celebrate his love of color and shape.

Henri Matisse At His Easel by Gjon Mili (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

In the early 40s, Matisse developed a new aesthetic and style of working out of necessity. His now famous cut out period was brought about by physical changes in Matisse’s life. In 1941 the artist was diagnosed with abdominal cancer and while the surgery was successful, it resulted in serious complications, which left him chair and bed-bound.

Matisse developed the new art form using paper and scissors. With the help of his assistants, he began creating cut-paper collages, also known as decoupage. Matisse would cut sheets of paper, pre-painted with gouache by his assistants, into shapes of varying colors and sizes and then arrange them to form vibrant compositions.

Henri Matisse Reviewing Drawings in Nice by Gjon Mili (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Matisse with his assistant Lydia Delectorskaya (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Matisse moved to Vence in 1943, a commune in between Nice and Antibes, and it was there he produced his first major cut-out project for his artist’s book titled, Jazz. Matisse saw these works separately from his principal art form, conceiving these works as designs for stencil prints rather than artworks in their own right. However, Matisse soon saw the possibilities this technique offered him as an artist saying: “An artist must never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of a style, prisoner of a reputation, prisoner of success…”

Matisse began producing works outside of his initial cut-out project, which soon led to mural-sized works. His studio assistant Lydia Delectorskaya loosely pinned the silhouettes of birds, fish and marine life directly on the walls of his studio, as Matisse changed the composition as he went.

The Circus from Jazz by Henri Matisse (From the collection of Castro Maya Museums)
Matisse painting by Gjon Mili (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

In 1948, Matisse explored the cut-out technique further in his designs for the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. Here he used the method in a purely decorative context and created designs for the chapel windows, chasubles (outfits worn by the clergy) and the tabernacle door. It was during this time where the cut-out approach became Matisse’s primary art form and in the following years before his death in 1954, cut-outs were the artist’s sole medium for expression.

Throughout Matisse’s career, whether it was during his oil-painted works, his stripped-back sculptural pieces or in his final years of cut-outs, the consistent theme within the artist’s work is an appreciation of form and composition. Matisse demonstrated the benefits of being open to influence, absorbing techniques from his contemporaries and the colors seen on his travels. His use of bright hues and simple shapes to convey mood and emotion was bold at the time, and continues to be an inspiration to many artists today.

Matisse in the chapel he designed by Dmitri Kessel (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Matisse by Gjon Mili (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
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