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Henri Matisse

Born December 31, 1869, Le Cateau, Picardy, France—died November 3, 1954,

The artist often regarded as the most important French painter of the 20th century. The leader of the Fauvist movement around 1900, Matisse pursued the expressiveness of colour throughout his career. His subjects were largely domestic or figurative, and a distinct Mediterranean verve presides in the treatment.

Matisse, whose parents were in the grain business, displayed little interest in art until he was 20 years old. From 1882 to 1887 he attended the secondary school in Saint-Quentin; after a year of legal studies in Paris, he returned to Saint-Quentin and became a clerk in a law office. He began to sit in on an early-morning drawing class at the local École Quentin-Latour, and, in 1890, while recovering from a severe attack of appendicitis; he began to paint, at first copying the coloured reproductions in a box of oils his mother had given him. Soon he was decorating the home of his grandparents at Le Cateau.

In 1891 he abandoned the law and returned to Paris to become a professional artist. Although at this period he had, in his own words, “hair like Absalom`s,” he was far from being a typical Left Bank bohemian art student. “I plunged head down into work,” he said later, “on the principle I had heard, all my young life, expressed by the words ��?Hurry up!` Like my parents, I hurried up in my work, pushed by I don`t know what, by a force which today I perceive as being foreign to my life as a normal man.” This 19th-century gospel of work, derived from a middle class, northern French upbringing, was to mark his entire career, and soon it was accompanied by a thoroughly bourgeois appearance—gold-rimmed spectacles; short, carefully trimmed beard; plump, feline body; conservative clothes—which was odd for a leading member of the Parisian avant-garde.

Matisse did not, however, become a member of the avant-garde right away. In 1891, in order to prepare himself for the entrance examination at the official École des Beaux-Arts, he enrolled in the privately run Académie Julian, where the master was the strictly academic William-Adolphe Bouguereau, then at the peak of a since-departed fame as a painter of bevies of naked, mildly provocative nymphs. That Matisse should have begun his studies in such a school may seem surprising, and he once explained the fact by saying that he was acting on the recommendation of a Saint-Quentin painter of hens and poultry yards. But it must be remembered that he himself was for the moment a provincial with tastes that were old-fashioned in a Paris already familiar with the Post-Impressionism of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh.

His earliest canvases are in the 17th-century Dutch manner favored by the French Realists of the 1850s.

Popular prints from this artist