How Can You Reinvent Yourself?

3 keys for transformation from the life of Henri Matisse.

Posted May 25, 2019

Blue Nude, Henri Matisse, 1952 Fair Use
Source: Blue Nude, Henri Matisse, 1952 Fair Use

If you need to reinvent yourself, consider the life of Henri Matisse.

He swept into the art cosmos like a blazing comet and was world-famous by his early 20s. His paintings were in the most prestigious museums all over Europe. His only close competitor was Pablo Picasso.

From his earliest beginnings, his paintings were a riot of color, and he was associated with the group of painters known as “The Fauvists” (the savages). Later on, in addition to its charismatic coloration, his work was noted for its flattened forms and antiphonal use of decorative patterns.

Matisse’s mastery of painting technique was supreme.

But when Matisse was in his 40s, tragedy struck. 

His body was invaded by cancer, and for the next several years, he struggled mightily to free himself from the disease. He traveled to exotic locales and tried every kind of therapy available.

And all the while he painted, Matisse held a strong, mystical belief in the healing power of painting.

And he got well.

Matisse spent the next few years in a flurry of creativity, painting nearly every waking moment. He created some of his greatest masterworks during this time.

But there was still another tragedy lying in wait for Matisse, and this was not as readily overcome as cancer.

It was arthritis.

It began slowly, almost imperceptibly, but its progress was relentless. It started as a vague, subliminal stiffness, then began to overtake his limbs, making it difficult to move. He began dropping things and falling. Finally, he reached the point where he couldn’t stand for more than 30 seconds without pain. And he spent the next 14 years of his life going between his bed and a wheelchair.

But worst of all, his hand could no longer hold a paintbrush to execute all the delicate movements necessary for painting.

Matisse was a painter, who had devoted his entire life to painting, and now he could no longer paint! For the next two years, Matisse was plunged into despair. 

He would roll himself out into one of his favorite places, his garden. But there, surrounded by the beauty he could no longer paint, his eyes welled up with tears.

Then one day, out in the garden, he noticed a butterfly and was fascinated by the rapid opening and closing of its wings. The movement of the wings reminded him of the action of scissors.

Then he remembered how, as a young child of 5, he loved to use scissors to cut colorful shapes out of paper.

He began wondering if he could do something like that again.

He called up a store and ordered 30 different pairs of scissors, in all different sizes and shapes. When the scissors arrived, he experimented until he found the perfect pair. They were easy to use and didn’t require the kind of extreme control a paintbrush did.

So, Matisse began a new career. It is what is now called “Matisse’s Cutout Period.”

Most of the pieces from this period are quite large, because it was easier for Matisse to work with large pieces of paper. He had an assistant, who put the pieces of colored paper on canvas on his bedroom or studio wall. Matisse indicated the exact placement, pointing with a long stick either from his bed or his wheelchair.

Matisse’s career with his cutouts lasted 14 years, until his death in 1954. The artworks from this period are stunning and wonderful symphonies of color. Matisse would have been a famous artist from his cutouts alone, even if he’d never touched a paintbrush!

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently ran a major exhibit of the Matisse cutouts, and it was one of the most popular and successful exhibits in the museum’s history.

So, Henri Matisse reinvented himself. And so can we.

Here are three keys to Matisse’s transformation that can apply to any of us:

1. Matisse Was Open to a New Identity 

He was open to a whole new way of thinking about himself. Instead of interminably grieving about his past losses, he was open to a new way of defining himself and thinking about his life.

2. He Didn’t See Himself as Being Too Old or Too Infirm to Try Something New

Even though Matisse was over 70 when he first thought about doing cutouts, he didn’t let his age or his infirmities stop him. In fact, he was unable to walk and was confined to a wheelchair and bed, but he worked on his cutouts anyway. Some of his most glorious cutouts were done in 1954, the year that he died at age 84! 

3. The Seeds of His New Art, Scissors, Were Already Present From a Childhood Memory 65 Years Before

The wonderful artform of cutouts was dormant, lying in wait until Matisse needed it. It had been there all along. He just needed to call on it.

So these are the three keys that helped Matisse transform his life, and they are available to any of us.

How will you reinvent your life?

David Evans

© 2019 David Evans