Who was Henri Matisse? An Artist’s Journey from Drawings to Paintings

Henri Matisse painting

Henri Matisse was born in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, France, to wealthy, conservative parents, on December 31, 1869. His father, an engraver and illustrator of historical and topographical works, encouraged his son’s drawing skills early on in life. As a result, Henri decided to follow his father in the field of art at the age of ten.

Artist Henri Matisse was forced to leave school at 14 to work in his father’s business after his father’s death from tuberculosis. Although he resented this move at the time, it made him appreciate the importance of hard work and instilled great discipline in him, which would serve him well later on in life. But before he became the celebrated French painter we know today, what did Henri Matisse do?

Art School in Paris

Many consider Matisse to be among France’s most prominent modern artists, and as such, his work is showcased in many museums. His artistic life started at school in Paris, where he attended L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts and studied under Gustave Moreau, another of France’s leading modern artists. Here, Matisse was exposed to other famous painters who would become his contemporaries, including Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat. He also developed an interest in both Impressionism and Post-Impressionism during these years.

He moved to London for several years, and it was there that he painted his most famous painting, The Red Studio. During his early life, Matisse worked as an art teacher at different institutions in Paris and London. He also designed costumes for theater companies, including Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. His final artwork would prove to be a mural he completed while working as artistic director of French radio in 1944.

First Gallery Shows and Sculpture

After studying law at university and working as a court clerk, he enrolled in art school and began to develop his paintings in 1890. The early ones were primarily influenced by Impressionism, while later works showed more stylistic similarities with Fauvism. From 1906 to 07, his work became progressively radical and discordant until he reached a Fauvist position by 1908.

Henry’s first solo exhibition was held in Paris in 1907. He had some of his famous Matisse paintings exhibited there, and it helped him become famous all over Europe. You can check out Henri Matisse’s drawings to see what they look like and get mesmerized by them.

Henri’s Early Career

He took home first prize for drawing when he was only eleven years old. It is said that his father, an amateur artist, was so impressed with his son’s artistic abilities that he cried out in joy, “My boy, you will be an artist!” While his father may have been right about Henri’s future career path, at that time, it would have been difficult to consider how famous Henri would become.

beautiful painting

Later in Académie Julian, he learned various art techniques from artists like Auguste Toulmouche and Gustave Moreau and valued drawing as an essential art form in its own right. He also studied under Jean-Leon Gerome and James M. Whistler during his Academie Julian.

Early in his career, Henri specialized in painting historical and mythological works, like many other aspiring artists of his time. In addition, he painted forgeries of older paintings that he could pass as original work, increasing their value.

 He sold them to unscrupulous collectors who wanted impressive pieces for their collections without researching whether or not they were authentic. These early artistic endeavors earned him a reputation as a talented artist, but they also made him question what was important to him as an artist.

The Beginning of the Blue Period

Some of Henri Matisse’s most well-known paintings came during his early career, a period known as his Blue Period. It was during this period that he created many works featuring dark blues and grays, including Portrait of a Woman (1901), Still Life with Skull (1903), and Nude Reclining on a Divan (1904). Today, these pieces are displayed in museums around the world.

This wasn’t Matisse’s only period of artistic change, however. Later, he would transition to a different period called his Rose Period, which featured more red and pink tones in his artwork. Additionally, he dabbled in various other color palettes throughout his career, such as a 1923 series that used orange and yellow tones.

Developing an Individual Style as Fauvism Gains Traction

The Fauves, or wild beasts, were a loose group of artists and critics in Paris who gathered around 1905 to form a new group. These avant-garde thinkers believed that colors should have an emotional impact on viewers—before that time, art had typically been more realistic and toned down. While most group members painted landscapes, Henri Matisse focused on human figures and portraits.

At first, his style was highly experimental but eventually developed into his signature style with bold lines and bright colors. His famous paintings include Le bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) from 1905 to 1906 and La Danse (Dance) from 1910 to 1911. Also, check out Henri Matisse’s drawings here.

The Change: World War I

Henri Matisse was best known for his paintings. However, most people don’t know that he served as an ambulance driver for France during World War. Henri would sketch his fellow soldiers and paint camouflage to disguise military vehicles during his service. After returning from war, he turned away from all forms of abstraction and embraced figurative art, something considered a popular move.

However, he suffered from alcoholism and depression for most of his adult life, something that’s evident in many of his paintings. Finally, his wife gave him an ultimatum in 1954 – either stop drinking or she would leave him. He chose to stop drinking, and he was able to create some famous Matisse paintings later in life. In 1955, Henri Matisse created The Snail after a three-year hiatus from painting due to illness- one of Henri Matisse’s drawings that brings out the artist in him.

Henri’s Late Career

He was recognized for his colorful paintings and paper cutouts in his late career. His work is often categorized as Fauvism, an early-20th-century style characterized by bright colors and bold brushstrokes. In one of his most famous masterpieces, The Dance (1909), Matisse portrays five dancers in front of a simple backdrop of green leaves and a blue sky. He created The Dance using vibrant colors to evoke movement.

He created collages and paper cutouts during his late career that depicted various scenes from everyday life. This was in contrast to his earlier work, in which he often portrayed famous figures or historical events. In addition to being recognized for his paintings of dancers, other subjects of interest for Matisse included portraits of friends and female nudes. He also created stained glass designs and ceramics.


If you’re looking for art with a different flair, go to museums or check out Henri Matisse’s drawings. Viewing art that has influenced many other artists throughout history is always fun. Check out some famous Matisse paintings, including his Nude in Front of Open Window and The Dream.

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