Inspire, develop & celebrate creativity

How Matisse Became Matisse

Matisse one of the most influential artists of our age can teach other creatives quite a bit. The work and life of Matisse has changed the way I view my creative career. Read on to learn how.

To me Matisse has been an guiding light and a big inspiration. How Matisse found his path,  how he approached inspiration, and how he dedicated himself to his calling. The work and life of Matisse has changed the way I view my creative career. Read on to learn how.

To reach a deeper appreciation of Matisse we need to look at his upbringing. To understand how his childhood and yearly years fuelled his talent and shaped his creativity.


Growing Up To Become Henri Matisse

On the last evening of December 1869 the wind whistled through holes in the roof, biting into a small ramshackle weaver’s cottage. Inside Émile paced the dirt floor as his wife Anna gave birth to their first son Henri Émile Benoît Matisse.

Matisse grew up in a industrial textile town in northern France. He came of age just as the world was embracing a new way of life through what was then new and innovative technology. Railway tracks laced the countryside tying cities closer together. Making traveling by steam engine fashionable in France and the rest of Europe. Although most of his town still rode horseback.

A shy, intelligent and sensitive child, who had a strong bond with his mother, Matisse was fond of pigeons and kept a few that he raised on his family’s property. Matisse’s mother, described as warm hearted and tender, worked in the family’s shop selling house paints by day and painting porcelain by night. Matisse credit’s his mother’s eye for colour as his inspiration for his interest in art.

Matisse influenced by his father Émile’s ambition, started out his career in law. He passed the bar with distinction and without passion. He took a job at a law office. Privately Matisse cared for his pigeons and dreamed of more. Each morning he got up early, and snuck off to take drawing lessons before going to work.


The Beast Plunges

Health problems introduced Matisse to his true love. During an episode of appendicitis confining him to his bed for two years, his mother gave him a watercolour set to pass the time while he recovered. It was then, sick and bedridden, that he discovered his lifelong passion. Art. He would later in life confess to his coming wife  “I love you dearly, mademoiselle; but I shall always love painting more”.

After recovering Matisse moved into a cheap hotel in Paris, and started a second education studying art at the Académie Julian. Where he again became disillusioned, by the rigid style in which he was taught, and by the professor’s emphasis on copying earlier masters. Matisse struggled to survive on the miniscule allowance his farther could provide, and could only afford half sized meals. The other students teasing him about his serious demeanour and awkward nature, nicknamed him “The Doctor”.

He kept working at his art, studying under other artists, eventually adopting his own, unconventional style that defied the art “du jour”. Matisse explains “From the moment I held the box of colours in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast plunging towards the thing it loves.”

The Wild Poppies, Henri Matisse, 1953. Goauche, charcoal, and collage. Detroit Institute of Arts. © 2012 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkThe Wild Poppies, Henri Matisse, 1953. Goauche, charcoal, and collage. Detroit Institute of Arts. © 2012 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Ordinary Inspiring the Extraordinary

Part of the allure of Matisse’s work is in his execution. He uses everyday objects; a teacup, a pomegranate, a shoe -and transforms them into works of art. His studio space is a hodgepodge of objects that serve as inspiration for his craft. In no other way can an artist take a concept, a few scraps of paper and turn it into a concrete piece of visual art.

Matisse  demonstrates an ability to make something out of nothing, working only with the images in his mind that he translates on paper.



Travelling as Inspiration

With Matisse’s  slowly growing recognition he becomes able to afford to collect inspiration by travelling.

Le café Maure (Arab Coffeehouse) Year 1911-13 Museum/Gallery Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

In 1912 Matisse visits Morocco. He becomes fascinated with how the people in Tangier can rest in the palms shadows, while captivated, for hours on end, staring into goldfish bowls and day-dreaming. On a later trip Matisse portrays this in his painting The Arab Café. For Matisse the pigeons and goldfish came to represent innocence and searching for a paradise lost. 

A trip to the South Pacific in 1930 lit the spark that would catapult Matisse into being regarded as one of the great artists of his time. Inspired by the vibrant colours, coral and fish, Matisse returned home and started painting the shapes on the walls of his apartment.

Soon the idea transformed and he started to realize that cutting out these shapes made for excellent subject figures. Matisse started to integrate photography into his work, delivering a visual media that was both stunning and captivating.


Matisse Drew Inspiration from Many Artistic Disciplines

Matisse had an intense love of the ballet, and eventually went on to design costumes for dancers in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, among others. His work has inspired a generation of costume designers that have come after him, and his work continues to resonate among artists both young and old.
With his love of the theatre and everything art, he expanded his reach to include costume design, photography and film set design. Matisse, truly one of the greats. His work continues to inspire a generation of artists who have taken the art world by storm.

Matisse explains “In order to liberate the grace and naturalness of my model I do many exercises before committing pen to paper. I never strive for vigour; on the contrary, I am like a dancer or a tightrope-walker who begins his day with long hours of loosening-up exercises, so that every part of his body is under his control when he wants to convey his emotions to the public through a series of slow or fast dance movements or through an elegant pirouette.”


How Matisse Inspires

Lovers of the visual arts have come to appreciate the complex yet simple works of French artist Henri Matisse. Not only has he inspired a generation of artists, but that of dancers, writers, cinematographers and textile artists.

Matisse inspires with his art, as well as the way he lived, and how he thought. Here are four lessons all creatives can learn from Matisse:

  • Follow your passions and it is possible to succeed at a second career.
  • Divine inspiration from travel and other artistic disciplines.
  • Great art can come from the simplest of materials.
  • Throw yourself into your work like a beast plunging towards the thing it loves.


A Vermilion Goldfish Swims Away In the Afternoon Breeze

In 1952 at the peak of his popularity Matisse donates 100 of his artworks to his home town Le Cateau-Cambrésis. Experts estimates their value to be in excess of $14,000,000. Two years later in Nice the 84 year old Matisse, rests in the mild afternoon breeze under the cooing of his pigeons and dies of a heart attack.