Despite fierce rivalry as the most prominent artists of their generation, they became firm friends for almost half a century after meeting through their work.
Both men imagined a new future for art, challenging the era’s popular Realism and Renaissance styles with innovative ideas about depicting a “third dimension” – turning flat figures into more stylised forms.
Born in 1869, in Le Cateau, Picardy, France, Matisse was the son of a wealthy grain merchant. He began studying law in 1887 in Paris. After qualifying, his first job was as a court administrator.
However, at age 20, he suffered appendicitis and required a long convalescence. His mother gave him some art materials to help pass the time. Matisse described this as a “kind of paradise” and that’s when he decided to become an artist.
He studied at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1891 and then at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, painting landscapes and still life in a traditional style at first and then dramatically changing his approach in 1896, after he visited John Russell, an Australian painter, who introduced Matisse to impressionism.
Later that year, he held a successful exhibition of five paintings in the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. The French government bought two of them and Henri Matisse paintings were suddenly in demand.
In 1898, he went to study in London, followed by Corsica, before returning to Paris the following year.
He discovered the paintings of French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cézanne, who challenged the traditional flat perspective of paintings by creating 3D forms on a two-dimensional surface.
In the early 20th century, Matisse painted using the “divisionist” technique, separating colours into individual patches or dots.
In 1905, he joined a group of equally radical artists, known as the Fauves. They staged exhibitions in the Salon d’Automne in Paris, where the paintings’ inharmonious hues didn’t match the subjects’ natural colours. It was too much for some art critics, who wrote in the press that a “pot of paint had been flung in the face of the public”.
However, Matisse’s battered reputation was restored when his much-criticised painting, Woman with a Hat, was purchased by American art collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein. The siblings were highly regarded in the art world and were known for spending huge sums of money on paintings after visiting artists’ studios all over the world.
Picasso was born in Málaga, Spain, in 1881, to a middle-class family. His father, Don José Ruiz y Blasco, was an artist who specialised in natural paintings mainly of landscapes and wild birds.
As a child prodigy, Picasso showed a talent for drawing and painting from an early age. His father became a professor at the A Coruña School of Fine Arts in 1891 and tutored his son in a traditional style. However, when he saw the 13-year-old’s outstanding painting of a pigeon, he said his son had already surpassed his talents.
At 16, Picasso was sent to Spain’s leading art school, the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, in Madrid. However, he hated the formal training and stopped going to classes soon after enrolling, instead, visiting Madrid’s public galleries, such as the Prado Museum, to view paintings by great artists including Francisco Goya.
He moved to Paris – Europe’s art capital – in 1900, aged 19. He lived in extreme poverty, sleeping all day and working at night in a freezing apartment. He burned some of his own drawings to light a fire in the hearth.
In 1902, the Steins staged an art exhibition in a small gallery in Paris, exhibiting paintings by Matisse and Picasso, who didn’t know each other at the time. They bought one of Picasso’s paintings for £105. This equates to around £10,000 in today’s terms, taking inflation into account. This was a turning point in his life, and he was able to fund his own studio.
Four years later in 1906, when Picasso met Matisse, they were both established artists. Their first meeting was organised by the Steins, who took Matisse to visit Picasso’s studio. They also invited both artists to attend their weekly salons, where paintings by Matisse and Picasso were displayed on the walls, alongside works by Cézanne.
Cézanne’s unusual paintings created a little common ground for the two rivals, who were both influenced by his style. However, they each interpreted the master’s work in a different way: Matisse, 37, had been painting in a radical fashion for around a decade by 1906, while the younger Picasso, 27, was just discovering Cubism.
Matisse created his latest painting, Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra, in 1907, after studying Cézanne’s work. He used a nude postcard of a woman as his model, but his painting was described as “shocking” in some quarters. Despite the Steins snapping it up, critics slated its “misshapen” and even “reptilian” form against a backdrop of palm trees.
Picasso studied Matisse’s nude painting, but later admitted he didn’t understand what his rival was thinking. He famously said the image interested him in the same way as a “blow between the eyes” would.
Their relationship became one of rivalry and friendship over the next five decades.
The self portraits of Pablo Picasso became some of his most famous works over the years. He had drawn his first at age 15 and worked in many different styles until he created his last at the age of 90. His most expensive painting ever sold was Dora Maar au Chat, or Dora Maar with Cat, dating from 1941 and featuring Cubist influences and chromatic style. It sold for £78.4 million at auction in 2006.
The Snail by Henri Matisse is one of his most renowned works. Completed in 1953, he used a technique called “drawing with scissors”, which involved cutting out shapes and sticking them onto the canvas. It is currently owned by the Tate Gallery.
His most expensive painting was Odalisque Couchée aux Magnolias, painted in 1923. Part of the billionaire Rockefeller family’s collection for many years, it was sold for £66.4 million in 2018.
Picasso and Matisse remained good friends until November 1954, when Matisse died at the age of 84. Picasso’s response was to paint a series in tribute to Matisse’s love of North Africa and the Middle East. He used many of his old friend’s favourite motifs, including an open window showing the view outside and the symbolism and decorative arts of the region.
Pablo Picasso artwork remains highly prized today following his death in 1973, at the age of 91: his 1932 portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, called Femme à la Montre, is expected to reach £98 million at auction when it is sold by Sotheby’s in New York in November.
The contribution Picasso and Matisse made to the art world has inspired many others to embrace their love for art.
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