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Matisse: The Cut-Outs
Henri Matisse was born in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, in northern France, on December 31, 1869. He embarked on a career in law, but took up painting while recovering from appendicitis. By 1892 he began an extended apprenticeship with the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, who encouraged Matisse to study the old masters and helped to develop his sense of color. Despite some early success at the official salons, he struggled financially. It was during the summers of 1904 and 1905, spent in the south of France, that Matisse’s work dramatically shifted. There, in the bright sunlight of the ports of Saint-Tropez and Collioure, he created optically dynamic works of bright, clashing color that were derided for their feral quality with the epithet fauves (wild beasts) when they were first exhibited. Known as Fauvism, the work from this period set Matisse on a career-long path that he described as “construction by means of color.” Fauvism’s vibrations were soon replaced by flat planes of color surrounded by arabesque contours, with subjects presented on a monumental scale. He published his ideas from this period about color, line, and composition in his “Notes of a Painter,” in 1908.
After a visit to Morocco in 1912–13 exposed him to the light, architecture, and textiles of that region, Matisse stayed closer to home, in the south of France, from late 1917 to 1930—a time known as his “Nice period.” His work, though still involved in the optical properties of color and composition, became more intimate, concentrating on the female figure, interiors, and still lifes. In the 1930s and 1940s he became increasingly active as a printmaker and published a variety of livres d’artiste. Matisse reinvigorated his study of color in his last years through his cut-outs made from brightly painted paper. He used this process for projects ranging in scale from intimate books like Jazz (1947) to his designs for the Chapel of the Rosary in the town of Vence to wall-size works.
During the last decade of his life Henri Matisse deployed two simple materials—white paper and gouache—to create works of wide-ranging color and complexity. An unorthodox implement, a pair of scissors, was the tool Matisse used to transform paint and paper into a world of plants, animals, figures, and shapes. After this final chapter, during which the artist achieved the height of his creative powers, he died on November 3, 1954.
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