HENRI MATISSE (1869-1954), one of the world's best-known and most enduringly popular artists, is recognized in particular for brightly colored paintings, robustly sensual sculptures, and lively paper cutouts. He also created a large body of works on paper, including prints, drawings, and book illustrations. Among less-familiar aspects of his artistic practice, much of his graphic work is monochromatic and, upon first glance, may seem distinct from his painting and sculpture. Nevertheless, commonalities of subject matter, style, technique, and general artistic concerns can be found throughout his work in all media.
As was the case with most artists educated in the 19th century, drawing was an integral part of Matisse's formation. He began to pursue art seriously in 1891, when, after giving up a law career, he entered the studio of conservative academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau at the Academie Julien in Paris. The next year, he left and went to study at the more liberal studio of Gustave Moreau, where he stayed until Moureau's death in 1898. In both studios, Matisse drew figure studies from life. Moreau frequently took or sent his students to the Louvre to copy the works of the Old Masters. Although Matisse would go on to interpret the same classical subjects very differently, these experiences at the Louvre sparked a lifelong interest in still life, interiors, and the human figure.
Between 1897 and 1900, Matisse experimented with numerous artistic styles, including Impressionism, Pointillism, and Neo-Impressionism. He explored the modern art scene through frequent visits to galleries such as Durand-Ruel and Vollard, where he was exposed to work by Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh. Between 1901 and 1904, Matisse created his first etchings and drypoints. These early forays into printmaking are fairly conventional, sketchbook-like academic figure studies. From the start, the female body would be the focus of almost all of his graphic work. He explained his passion for this subject and for working from a live model in 1908: "The [female] model, for others, is a piece of information. In my case, it is something which arrests me. It is my source of energy."
Matisse hit his stride in the avant-garde art world around 1905, working with a group of artists that included Andre Derain, Albert Marquet, and Maurice Vlaminck, who came to be known as les fauves (the wild beasts). Fauvism was characterized by its intense, nonnaturalistic colors, juxtaposed as broad patches on the canvas. In 1906, Matisse translated this Fauvist style into three woodcuts, including "Le Grand Bois." Although monochromatic, these woodcuts possess the same strong lines, bold strokes, and dynamism that characterize his Fauvist paintings. Working in the woodcut technique, without color, Matisse was able to explore how to convey a subject with line better and to render volume and space, thus resolving some of his struggles with drawing. "Le Grand Bois," like many of his other graphic works, is not completely devoid of color, since the artist added important elements of texture and color to this composition through his choice of an ecru-toned laid paper.
In 1906, he created a series of 12 lithographs, all variations on the theme of a seated nude. Matisse chose to share his graphic work with the public almost immediately. The lithographs were exhibited at the Druet gallery in Paris the same year that they were produced, and the woodcuts were shown at the Salon des Independants in the spring of 1907. In 1908, his prints, along with some of his watercolors, made it across the Atlantic to be exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz's seminal Gallery "291" in New York.
Matisse spent the next eight years focused on his painting and returned to printmaking in 1914, with the outbreak of World War I. Over the next two years, using a small printing press installed in his apartment in Paris, and with the assistance of his daughter Marguerite, he created a series of 60 small etchings and drypoints of his family and friends. …