Elegant Artist - Henri Emile Matisse

On December 31, 1869, Henri Emile Matisse entered into a world and a family with many plans for him. Matisse spent his childhood and school days in Bohain France and later in Ste. Quentin, where he studied Latin and Greek until the year 1887. The path chosen by Matisse's parents for him, was one that led to a career in one of the professions and so, the young man was sent to Paris to study law.


In the year 1888, after studying one year in Paris (never once incidentally visiting an art gallery or even the annual Salon) Matisse returned to Ste. Quentin where he found himself a job as a lawyer's clerk. A slight interest in art became somewhat evident as Matisse enrolled himself in a night school drawing class, while working during the day as a clerk. However, this interest didn't lead much of anywhere. Matisse was quite content to live his life day by day as a law clerk and probably would have continued to do so for many years had it not been for an illness that struck him in his twenty-first year.

Somewhat of a "blessing in disguise", Matisse fell ill with appendicitis in the year 1890. During his long convalescence from the illness, his mother tried to amuse him with a box of paints, a set of brushes and a how-to-paint book. These art supplies made Matisse feel free for the first time in his life.

In 1891, much against the wishes of his father, a fully recovered Matisse returned to Paris - this time - to study art.

Matisse's Goldfish

Matisse the painter was inspired and gifted beyond belief. His use of color and form continues to influence the work of artists today - one hundred years later. However, Matisse the sculptor was just as gifted, just as inspired and in many ways... more influential.

The year was 1899 - Henri Matisse was 30 years old when an interest in sculpture was sparked - a result of a visit to Auguste Rodin's studio. Matisse was impressed with the power and freedom of Rodin's expressionism and he longed to discover if he too could express his feelings so beautifully through sculpture.

Anyone familiar with Matisse's painted works is aware that they were all about a two dimensional reduction of form. In other words, he was interested in breaking an image down to the point of simple color and shape. It would seem rather strange then that Matisse would be even remotely interested in expressing himself through sculpture. Furthermore, color - the wonderful tool of his trade - could not be explored as readily through sculpture. So why should this painter choose a three dimensional medium to express himself?

Why Choose Sculpture?

Simply put, for Henri Matisse, sculpture was a medium in which he could explore the human figure, with results much more powerful than what was possible within the confined spaces of a framed canvas. So, in 1898 Matisse enrolled himself in evening classes at the Ecole d'art Municipale, where he worked and completed his first sculpture - a copy of Antoine Louis Bayre's "Jaguar Devouring a Hare". The work took two years to complete and was beautiful and correct in its form. Matisse dissected a cat so as the study the complete anatomy and translate it to the jaguar form. The piece however did not shout "Matisse" - it was a copy - that's all. It wasn't until 1903 when Matisse complete his sculpture The Slave (or The Serf), that his own voice began to ring out of the work.

It is rather necessary to remember that when Matisse began sculpting, it was during a time when artists in general were becoming more and more interested in their abilities to effectively express feeling, rather that anatomically correct forms. It seems logical then that Matisse's sculpture would reflect the ideas of the time.

Matisse's first significant sculpture was that of a standing male nude, created between the years of 1900 and 1903. Entitled "The Slave" or "The Serf", it stood 37 3/8" high. It was very "Rodinesque" - understandably so - due to the fact that Matisse was at the time attending sculpture classes led by Rodin. However, where Rodin was more concerned with anatomical correctness, Matisse allowed his feelings to dictate how the figure was to look.

The man who modeled for Matisse was Bevilacqua - a model often used by Rodin. Matisse had Bevilacqua pose over 500 times before he was satisfied. He used these 500 sittings to decide what exactly to emphasize, distort and rearrange in order to capture the true essence of the man. In the end, Matisse decided to remove the arms because they were - in his opinion - redundant to the expressiveness of the figure. What resulted was not so much a realistic representation of the model Bevilacqua, but more a form simplified to the point where only the essential qualities remained.

After "The Serf", Matisse became increasingly concerned with the female form. In fact, the great knowledge he had of the female form was gained in part through sculpture. Creating figurines such as Madeleine, La Serpentine and Deux (Two) Négresses, served to enlighten Matisse as to the physical correctness of the female form. A slightly different angle of a woman's body can be seen in the Back Series.


Matisse - the Back Series

Matisse usually turned to sculpture as a three dimensional exercise that would revive him from his struggle with the two dimensions of painting. In one instance, he brought the two together as he experimented for over twenty years with a series of low relief sculptures (6" deep at their deepest) of a female back. Four reliefs - life size or larger - were completed between 1909 and 1929. "Back I" completed in 1909 was a very careful piece of work, an almost naturalistic depiction of the female back. "Back II", completed in 1913, and "Back III" completed in 1917, were progressive simplifications of the form, growing more and more stylized and powerfully abstract until finally, "Back IV" was completed in 1930. This final relief sculpture was radically simplified. The back was reduced to two columns, divided by a third - a thick tress of hair.

The use of modeled relief with such immense sculptural power was really very unique in Modern Art.

Contributions to 20th Century Sculpture

Henri Matisse was an active sculptor for some 30 years. His sculptures were often inspired by his paintings or were forerunners of forms that were to later appear. Matisse took the art of simplification almost to its limit. By breaking down the human figure - leaving only the essential bits - the artist was able to express the human form while at the same time allowing his own creativity to shine through.

Matisse's concepts of altering and rearranging the parts of the human form helped to change sculpture in the 20th century. In fact, the aesthetic distortion that later sculptors developed further and more systematically, originated with Matisse. Clearly his influence did not die with him, on November 3, 1954.

Although Henri Matisse - the sculptor - made a lasting impression on the art world and sculpture for years to come, Henri Matisse - the painter - endured. He was quoted more than once as saying, "I did my sculpture as a painter. I did not work as a sculptor."

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