Henri Matisse is widely regarded as the greatest colorist of the 20th century. The French artist used color as the foundation for his expressive, decorative and large-scale paintings. He once wrote that he sought to create art that would be “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair”.

Ripe fruit, luxurious fabrics, comely women, a window with a view of an ultramarine sea: The world of Henri Matisse is one of pleasures. Along with fellow modernist Pablo Picasso, he is one of the giants of the 20th-century avant-garde, a perennial subject of blockbuster exhibitions whose cut-paper figures are among the most recognized images in art history.

According to several recent biographies, he was also a workaholic, a depressive, and a frequent punching bag for the Parisian intellectual vanguard, which ran hot and cold on his paintings’ busy patterning and lush palette. (His stalwart frenemy Picasso, upon seeing Matisse’s full-bodied Blue Nude from 1907, apparently sneered “If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman. If he wants to make a design, let him make a design.”)

Be that as it may, by Matisse’s own account, painting was all that made sense; he was ordered to it like an apostle conferenced by God. “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life,” he said, looking back decades later. “I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges toward the thing it loves.”

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