Henri Matisse was born in France in 1869, and studied law as a young man. However, during a period of ill health he began painting, and in 1891 he decided to turn his efforts toward the fine arts. He studied at the Academie Julian in Paris, and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with Gustave Moreau during the 1890's, when the French art world was swirling with new ideas about painting. The Impressionists had shaken things up 20 years before, and now the painter Gauguin and many others were discussing the new notion that painting should not aim to imitate the external world, but rather that a painting was essentially a flat surface upon which artists arranged colors and shapes. As a young painter, Matisse was influenced by this new idea, as well as by 'primitive' art (an unfortunate term that was used starting in the 19th century), which was being discovered by young artists, and soon after the turn of the century, together with the artists Derain, Vlaminck and others, formed the Fauve movement. Les fauves in French means 'wild beasts,' so named by the critics, who claimed that these painters merely flung brightly-colored paint at the canvas in this wild manner. Soon after this, Picasso and Braque, influenced by the new ideas as well as by Cezanne and primitive art, developed the first Cubist images.
So-called primitive art meant the work of an untrained painter such as the 19th-20th century artist Rousseau, as well as sculpture from other parts of the world, such as Africa. Many late 19th (and early 20th) century European artists were drawn to certain qualities about this 'primitive' art, such as its non-imitative nature, its powerful and inventive stylized forms, and its more direct and honest quality, which contrasted with their impression of the overly refined art of the European academic tradition. Specifically, Picasso was drawn to the Catalan sculpture of his native Spain, as well as African sculpture, and Gauguin was attracted to the simplicity and beauty of Tahiti, where he filled his canvases with bright, independent colors - colors which followed the laws of painting, rather than the imitation of external nature; painting which sought not to imitate nature, but to illuminate the artist's inner reality.
Seeing the act of painting as arranging forms and colors on a flat surface meant that artists now saw the 'formal' elements of painting (color, space, composition) as the true subject of their work. This notion marked the beginning of modernism in art. Fauvism placed emphasis on large, simplified forms and bright, "unnatural" color - color which existed independently of most local color (the 'actual' color of objects). This approach concentrated on, for example, color relationships as the most important concern - how colors affected one another visually, and combined to create the 'reality' of the image, rather than trying to depict the objective world. Matisse began with still lifes and interiors which still contained some observation of nature in the drawing of objects, with some 'flattening' of forms and of the canvas surface. As he matured as an artist, the forms became more and more simplified, and the images became less concerned with 'correct' drawing. Eventually, his images appear to have been only cursorily drawn and painted - just the essential parts were distilled from the image. There was no use of linear perspective to indicate spatial depth in this new painting; on the contrary, Matisse used his curvilinear forms and bold decorative patterns to emphasize the flatness of the canvas surface. There was also no blending of colors - they were placed flatly against one another, avoiding the 'soft' look of blended color and the 'natural' look of this method of depicting three dimensions.
Another visual device used by the Fauves was the black contour, sometimes solid, and sometimes broken. They also sometimes left a "white" contour around forms, which served to integrate the forms with their surrounding space in the image. Both of these devices contributed to a flat image, as opposed to the illusion of spatial depth used in traditional or academic painting. Another device Matisse developed was using one color over most of the painting surface - often red or deep pink - which covered the 'negative' spaces (the "empty" areas in the painting), leaving only simple linear indications of spatial depth such as perspective lines in, for example, an interior view. The lines of floor, ceiling, wall or even table perspective were left in a minimal fashion - leaving only the flattened objects in space - a bunch of flowers, a person, etc. (See Red Studio) This device served not only to flatten the image, but to unify the image in a completely new way. These large areas of color, as well as other aspects of Matisse's painting, were extremely influential in 20th century painting - leading not only to an emphasis on color relationships (Josef Albers, etc.), but the use of large areas of color, which came to be known as color field painting. Examples of painters using fields of color include Mark Rothko, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, Barnett Newman, and many others. His use of pattern has also been very influential, contributing to an appreciation of a decorative sense in painting.
Much European academic painting in the 19th century involved painting scenes of history or mythology, often as allegories; the method of painting was labored, and often consisted of dull browns applied in a completely smooth fashion, so as to hide the brushstrokes. Work was also usually painted in the studio, not in the plein air, as the Impressionists chose to do, where they used bright, pure and unblended colors in such a radical fashion, directly from life. In the world of the official art academies, the genre of still life was considered a lesser form than the elaborate history paintings. Again, the Impressionists changed all this, allowing painters such as Matisse to paint simple still lifes and interiors boldly and freely. Though he had been trained in an academic setting, he came to believe, as he said, that "Exactitude is not truth." His painting was based on joy and personal expression; he said that he wanted his work to be a balm to working people, to help them relax after their labors in the world. Many of his compositions, particularly his paintings of circles of dancers joining hands, express this celebration of life, and they are excellent examples of the idea of gesture in painting. His goal was total pictorial harmony - the absolute perfection of the relationships among his rhythmic forms.
Matisse was also influenced by the decorative (two-dimensional sense of beauty) quality of Near Eastern art, with its bright, pure colors, flatness, use of pattern, and emphasis on curved forms. Although his work has a strong decorative quality, it avoids the shallowness often associated with the decorative. It is light and cerebrally undemanding, but not superficial - nor easily painted, although it appears effortless. The simplicity of his images is deceptive; and though they are often happy, beautiful images, the joy in them can also be profound. Matisse emphasized that his images usually did not come easily - he worked, reworked and struggled to distill the essence of the image from the complex arrangement of forms in his paintings. He urged young art students not to be satisfied with images that come too easily - and to work hard to explore and decipher the world before them, in their paintings. In his essay, On Painting, he also advised students to always refer back to their original impulse for the painting - the very first conception of the image - when working, particularly when they come to an impasse. He felt that this initial impulse was the most important thing in bringing the work into the world (the execution of the painting), and that it would be the best guiding force in helping the artist make decisions about what to do next, or how to solve a visual problem in the work.
In 1941 and 1942, he was confined to bed because of two surgical operations, and was unable to paint. So he worked with cut paper to create cut-outs of simple forms in bold colors. These images, created with such simple means, are some of his most loved works - bold, free, direct images. He died in 1954, after a long life of painting and printmaking, as well as some sculpture. I love his use of pattern (in still lifes and interiors he would emphasize the striped or patterned tablecloth or wallpaper, for example), but my favorite Matisse image is his goldfish in a bowl. These goldfish are painted in one orange stroke, the absolute essence of the fish (almost a Zen quality) - and are thus childlike, free, innocent, and artless - they are free of illusion, artfulness, and so-called sophistication. This inspired Zen-like gesture, like Oriental calligraphy, contains a whole world within it - the sweep of an arm, the darting of a fish, the flash of a meteor, the instantaneity of enlightened recognition and understanding - ours and the artist's. See more of Matisse's work here.