Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse was born in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, Nord, France. He grew up in Bohain-en-Vermandois, Picardy, France, where his parents owned a flower business. He was their first son. In 1887 he went to Paris to study law, working as a court administrator in Le Cateau-Cambrésis after gaining his qualification. He first started to paint in 1889, when his mother had brought him art supplies during a period of convalescence following an attack of appendicitis. He discovered "a kind of paradise" as he later described it, and decided to become an artist, deeply disappointing his father.
In 1891, he returned to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian and became a student of William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Gustave Moreau. Initially he painted still-lifes and landscapes in the traditional Flemish style, at which he achieved reasonable proficiency. Chardin was one of Matisse's most admired painters; as an art student he made copies of four Chardin paintings in the Louvre.
In 1896 he exhibited 5 paintings in the salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and the state bought two of his paintings. In 1897 and 1898, he visited the painter John Peter Russell on the island Belle Île off the coast of Brittany. Russell introduced him to Impressionism and to the work of van Gogh. Matisse was also influenced by the works of Nicolas Poussin, Antoine Watteau, Édouard Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Signac, and also by Auguste Rodin, and Japanese art. Matisse immersed himself in the work of others and got in debt from buying work from many of the painters he admired. The work he hung and displayed in his home included a plaster bust by Rodin, a painting by Gauguin, a drawing by van Gogh, and most importantly, Cézanne's "Three Bathers". Many of his paintings from 1899 to 1905 make use of a pointillist technique adopted from Signac. In 1898, he went to London to study the paintings of J. M. W. Turner and then went on a trip to Corsica. Upon his return to Paris he worked beside lesser known painters such as Jules Flandrin.
With the model Caroline Joblau, he had a daughter, Marguerite, born in 1894. In 1898 he married Amélie Noellie Parayre; the two raised Marguerite together and had two sons, Jean and Pierre. Marguerite and Amélie often served as models for Matisse
His first solo exhibition was at Ambroise Vollard's gallery in 1904, without much success. His fondness for bright and expressive color became more pronounced after he moved southwards in 1905 to work with André Derain and spent time on the French Riviera. The paintings of this period are characterized by flat shapes and controlled lines, with expression dominant over detail.
In 1905, Matisse and a group of artists now known as "Fauves" exhibited together in a room at the Salon d'Automne. The paintings expressed emotion with wild, often dissonant colors, without regard for the subject's natural ones. Matisse showed "Open Window" and "Woman with the Hat" at the Salon. Critic Louis Vauxcelles described the work with the phrase "Donatello au milieu des fauves!" (Donatello among the wild beasts), referring to a Renaissance-type sculpture that shared the room with them. His comment was printed on a daily newspaper, and passed into popular usage. The pictures gained considerable condemnation, such as "A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public" from the critic Camille Mauclair, but also some favorable attention. The painting that was singled out for attacks was Matisse's Woman with a Hat, which was bought by Gertrude and Leo Stein: this had a very positive effect on Matisse, who was suffering demoralization from the bad reception of his work.
Matisse was recognized as a leader of the group, along with André Derain; the two were friendly rivals, each with his own followers. Other members were Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy and Maurice de Vlaminck. The Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau was the movement's inspirational teacher, and he did much for the era; a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he pushed his students to think outside of the lines of formality and to follow their visions.
The decline of the Fauvist movement after 1906 did nothing to affect the rise of Matisse; many of his finest works were created between 1906 and 1917, when he was an active part of the great gathering of artistic talent in Montparnasse, even though he did not quite fit in, with his conservative appearance and strict bourgeois work habits.
Around 1904 he met Pablo Picasso, who was 12 years younger than him. The two became life-long friends as well as rivals and are often compared; one key difference between them is that Matisse drew and painted from nature, while Picasso was much more inclined to work from imagination. The subjects painted most frequently by both artists were women and still-life, with Matisse more likely to place his figures in fully realized interiors.
His friends organized and financed the Académie Matisse in Paris, a private and non-commercial school in which Matisse instructed young artists. It operated from 1907 until 1911.
In 1917 Matisse relocated to Cimiez on the French Riviera, a suburb of the city of Nice. His work of the decade or so following this relocation shows a relaxation and a softening of his approach. This "return to order" is characteristic of much art of the post-World War I period, and can be compared with the Neoclassicism of Picasso and Stravinsky, and the return to traditionalism of Derain. His orientalist odalisque paintings are characteristic of the period; while popular, some contemporary critics found this work shallow and decorative.
He and his wife of 41 years separated in 1939. In 1941, he underwent surgery where a colostomy was performed. Afterwards, he started using a wheelchair. Until his death he would be cared for by a Russian woman, Lydia Delektorskaya, formerly one of his models. With the aid of assistants he set about creating cut paper collages, often on a large scale.
In 1947 he published Jazz, a limited-edition book containing prints of colorful, paper cut collages, accompanied by his written thoughts. In the 1940s he also worked as a graphic artist and produced black-and-white illustrations for several books and over one hundred original lithographs at the famous Mourlot Studios in Paris.
In 1951 Matisse finished a four-year project of designing the interior, the glass windows and the decorations of the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, often referred to as the Matisse Chapel. This project was the result of the close friendship between Matisse and Sister Jacques-Marie. He had hired her as a nurse and model in 1941 before she became a Dominican Nun and they met again in Vence and started the collaboration, a story related in her 1992 book "Henri Matisse: La Chapelle de Vence" and in the 2003 documentary "A Model for Matisse".
He established a museum dedicated to his work in 1952, in his birthplace city, and this museum is now the third-largest collection of Matisse works in France.
Matisse died of a heart attack at the age of 84 in 1954. He is interred in the cemetery of the Monastère Notre Dame de Cimiez, near Nice.