7 Fascinating Facts About Henri Matisse

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Alvin Langdon Coburn, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Alvin Langdon Coburn, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As one of the greatest colorists of the 20th century, Henri Matisse largely shaped modern art. He frequently experimented with different media, styles, and art movements throughout his career, influenced by the artists with whom he surrounded himself. One of his most famous works is Woman with a Hat (1905), a significant example of the Fauvist movement in French art. Aside from paintings, he produced drawings, sculptures, and graphic art as well. Here are seven interesting facts about Henri Matisse’s life as an artist.

1. Henri Matisse studied law and worked as a clerk.

Even though Matisse is known for his artistic mastery, he was originally set on becoming a lawyer. He studied law, passed the bar, and worked as a clerk for a law office. He attended drawing classes in the morning before going to the office. Matisse’s father wanted Henri, his eldest child, to eventually take over the family grain business—but Henri wasn’t interested.

2. While recovering from appendicitis, Henri Matisse found his passion.

Matisse suffered from appendicitis when he was young, and it changed the course of his life. After his surgery, he was confined to a bed for months. The long recovery period bored him so much that his mother gave him a paint box to lift his spirits. It was this pivotal moment that helped him discover his passion for art. He loved the freedom that it gave him, and once said it felt like "a kind of paradise." After leaving his job as a law clerk and defying his father's wish for him to take over the business, he moved to Paris to fully pursue art.

3. Henri Matisse had a rivalry with Pablo Picasso.

Matisse and Picasso first met at a gathering in the salon of American novelist and art collector Gertrude Stein, who supported both of their careers. Initially, they disliked each other, but they respected one other as artists and became lifelong friends despite their competitive natures. Matisse himself even compared their relationship to a boxing match. "No one has ever looked at Matisse's paintings more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he,” Picasso once said.

4. Henri Matisse and his wife, Amélie, blended personal and professional interests.

Matisse married Amélie Parayre, the unconventional daughter of a liberal schoolteacher, in 1898. As Matisse’s reputation for wildly innovative painting developed, Amélie became his artistic muse, model, and business manager. In 1935, Matisse hired a Russian refugee named Lydia Delectorskaya as a model, and they shared a deep understanding of Matisse’s art. Amélie was jealous of that partnership, and the Matisses separated in July 1939. After a brief absence, Delectorskaya returned to Matisse and worked for him until his death.

5. Henri Matisse developed the technique of “painting with scissors.”

Matisse’s surgery for abdominal cancer in 1941 effected his mobility, and afterwards he couldn’t stand for long periods of time. But his art entered a new, brilliant phase during his recovery. Matisse developed the technique of “painting with scissors” in which he cut painted papers into shapes and arranged them on his walls. He recut, combined, and assembled until he was content with the outcome.

6. Henri Matisse’s final work was the design for a stained-glass window.

The last work that Matisse completed before his death in 1954 was La Rosace, a circular stained-glass window [PDF]. Future New York governor Nelson Rockefeller commissioned it as a memorial for his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, an art patron who was a great admirer of Matisse. “Nothing would have pleased mother more,” he wrote to a colleague. It was installed at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills in Tarrytown, New York, where it remains today.

7. Henri Matisse’s daughter compiled a comprehensive record of his work.

Marguerite Duthuit, Matisse’s daughter with model Caroline Joblaud, was born four years before he married Amélie and modeled for him over several decades. She also served as her father’s assistant and archivist. After his death, Marguerite compiled the definitive record of Matisse’s artistic process and a catalog of his paintings. She was working on the final stages of the catalog when she died of a heart attack at age 87.