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The Genius of Matisse (The One Whose Paintings Look Like a 3rd-Grader's)

Updated on March 6, 2016

Introduction

As a budding art student, you soon learn little tricks and patterns for recognizing different artists. You know, the Dutch Masters look like they painted with different shades of mud, if it's gold and shiny it's a Klimt, etc. Well, here's the trick I learned for recognizing a Matisse: they kind of look like they were painted by a 3rd-grader. Your typical Matisse is flat, with wonky or non-existent perception; the figures are simply delineated; and most of all, the canvas is dominated by bright, shamelessly primary colors. Take a look at the painting below:

Henri Matisse, Conversation. Notice the flat blue background, the cartoonish garden and trees, and the blocky figures.
Henri Matisse, Conversation. Notice the flat blue background, the cartoonish garden and trees, and the blocky figures.

As simple as his paintings may seem, however, they were in fact incredibly sophisticated - the product of careful study, a wide variety of influences, and a revolutionary perspective as to what art should be. Henri Matisse, along with Pablo Picasso, is widely considered one of the fathers of modern art. In this article, we'll go into the life and artistic philosophy of this key figure in art history.

Early Years and Influences

The funny thing is that Matisse may have never become an artist at all, were it not for a curious twist of fate. As a young man he was sent to Paris to study law, but developed appendicitis and while recovering was given a set of paints by his mother. It was the first time that Matisse had painted, and it set off a lifelong love of art. He abandoned law to study painting, and so through a case of appendicitis one of the greatest modern painters was born.

Initially Matisse painted landscapes and still-lifes in a more traditional style, but he soon became drawn by the bright, colorful styles of Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cezanne. Matisse was also impressed by art from other cultures, including Japanese prints, Islamic art, and wooden African masks. Elements of these can be seen throughout his work.

Henri Matisse, Fruit and Coffeepot. This painting is a good example of his early, more traditional style.
Henri Matisse, Fruit and Coffeepot. This painting is a good example of his early, more traditional style.

Shocking the Art World: Fauvism

In Matisse's time the Post-Impressionists were already making waves, veering away from the traditional goal of creating a harmonious image and focusing more on the impact of color and line. Matisse, however, took their work a step further, abandoning convention altogether to make color the star of the show. His goal, as he put it, was "to make the colors sing". Take a look at the painting below:

Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de Vivre
Henri Matisse, Le Bonheur de Vivre

When this painting was debuted, nothing like it had been done before. No one had ever flouted the rules of composition, perception, lighting, and shadow so flagrantly. The colors don't even attempt to be realistic - pink trees? Blue grass? The nudes are scattered in shockingly sensual positions, with disproportionately voluptuous curvatures. The painting is disorientingly flat, with figures seeming to balloon in and out of view. The result of all this is that the viewer's primary experience is one of color - of many bright colors, all jumping out at you and clamoring to be heard.

It may be difficult these days to comprehend just how revolutionary this painting was at the time. He was one of the first to break away from this idea that art had to be easily comprehensible to the viewer as a depiction of life - i.e. he made that momentous leap from traditional to modern art. He didn't care about making his paintings as realistic as possible - he cared about the impact of color on the viewer. For his bright, bold, and cartoonish style of painting, Matisse was dubbed by a critic as a "Fauve", or a wild animal.

Later Years and a Focus on Colorism

Matisse continued to push the boundaries of art throughout his life. Despite the initial criticism, he remained preoccupied with color, ever experimenting with its inherent beauty regardless of composition. He proved that art could be beautiful without necessarily taking the form of a flower or a portrait - that its elements alone deserved appreciation. Towards the end of his career, he became even more focused on color and color alone, his art taking the form of huge, abstract collages.

A Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, NY.
A Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, NY.

Understanding Matisse Today

Looking at a piece by Matisse may initially be an unsettling experience. Though his paintings aren't totally abstract, it's often difficult to understand at first glance what they're showing. However, once you separate yourself from the subject matter and allow yourself to make it a purely sensory experience, a Matisse painting is truly sublime. Amongst the simple, even childish composition, you can appreciate the elegance and warmth of his work. Ultimately his goal was to create "art of balance, purity, and serenity... rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue." Years after his death, his paintings continue to give viewers that feeling of peace and comfort.

Henri Matisse, The Dessert Harmony in Red
Henri Matisse, The Dessert Harmony in Red

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