Sunday, December 31, 2006

Bon anniversaire, Henri.

[[Sitting around on a sunday, having one of those what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life moments, was pleased to stumble on this from Writer’s Almanac]]

It’s the birthday of the painter Henri Matisse, born in Le Cateau, France (1869). As far as historians can tell, there was absolutely no sign in Matisse’s early life that he would go on to become an artist. He started out studying law, and though his law school was in Paris, Matisse never once attended an art museum while he was living there, not even the Louvre.

He returned home after law school to take a clerical job in a lawyer’s office, when he was struck by a case of appendicitis. He was bedridden for weeks, and a neighbor suggested that he try passing the time by painting. His mother bought him a box of paints, and he read a how-to-paint book. He later described those first experiences painting as almost like a religious conversion. He said, “For the first time in my life I felt free, quiet, and alone...carried along by a power alien to my life as a normal man.”

When Matisse recovered from his appendicitis, he enrolled in a local drawing class, and he spent hours at the Louvre, copying the techniques of the old masters. Then, in 1905, Matisse submitted a portrait of his wife called “Woman with the Hat.” Critics were shocked by Matisse’s painting, and so Matisse was surprised to learn at the end of the exhibition that his painting had sold to a couple of American expatriates known for their eccentric taste, Leo and Gertrude Stein.

Matisse became one of the most radical and influential painters of his lifetime, but he always dressed like a lawyer, wearing a suit even while he painted some of the most revolutionary paintings of the 20th century.