Along with his friend and rival Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse (1869–1954) was one of the most inventive and groundbreaking artists of the 20th century. After getting a relatively late start in the art world—he began painting at age 20, while recovering from appendicitis in 1889—Matisse swiftly took his place at the forefront of avant-garde art in Paris in the years around 1900. As a leader of the so-called Fauves, or “Wild Beasts,” a group of artists associated with shockingly reductive forms and a bold, unorthodox use of color, Matisse produced some of the most challenging and original paintings of his career.
The artist’s approach oscillated over the next five decades, as he explored broad, flat planes of color, dizzyingly decorative designs and spare, arabesque-like line drawings. Throughout, Matisse consistently approached art-making as an inquisitive process, one that—at its most effective—employed techniques that were expressive in their own right. As he explained in an oft-cited quote, “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter . . . a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”
Norton Simon began collecting Matisse’s art in the mid-1950s, and he continued to augment as well as selectively reduce his holdings of the artist’s work over the next two decades. Mr. Simon gravitated toward Matisse’s figural compositions, particularly his studies of women in repose, but the collector did not privilege a single medium or period of focus. He acquired vibrant, midcareer paintings such as The Black Shawl (1917) and Nude on a Sofa (1923) alongside robust early bronzes and the illustrative projects that consumed the artist’s last years.
Though a number of these objects were sold or donated during Mr. Simon’s lifetime, the Norton Simon Museum and its related foundations today possess an impressive 86 works, including three important paintings dating to the late 1910s and 1920s, two significant suites of prints and a recently acquired ink sketch that likely depicts the artist’s trusted studio assistant Lydia Delectorskaya. Together, this body of work demonstrates the astonishing diversity of styles that Matisse pursued in the second half of his career, from the patterned surfaces and light-filled spaces of his Nice period to the artist’s revolutionary experiments with cut-paper collage for the 1947 portfolio Jazz. In these buoyant, semiabstract designs, Matisse transcends the traditional rivalry between drawing and color by articulating form through the arrangement of pure pigments.