In the early 20th century, a 30-something Frenchman named Henri Matisse shocked the Parisian art world with his painting Woman with a Hat (1905). His application of radically expressive colors to his subject—teal on her face, orange on her neck, pink and blue on her arms—made no logical sense, leaving viewers and critics scratching their heads.
But these decisions made sense to Matisse, who used such strange, vivid colors to render not what he saw in reality, but what he felt. This approach would lead to the development of Fauvism, one of the first modern art movements, and would cement Matisse’s place as one of the greatest painters in modern art history.
Lesson #1: Master the basics, then be expressive
As a student, Matisse went to the Louvre to copy works by artists like Raphael, Nicolas Poussin, and Annibale Carracci; he was instructed to do so by his own teacher, Gustave Moreau. “It would be wrong to think that there has been a break in the continuity of artistic progress from the early to the present-day painters,” Matisse wrote in 1935. “In abandoning tradition the artist would have but a fleeting success, and his name would soon be forgotten.”
Lesson #2: Make up your own rules
Matisse was quite the rule-breaker, from a young age. First, he left law school in 1892 to begin painting. Shortly thereafter, he abandoned his studies under traditional academic artists, who forced him to paint classical still lifes and landscapes. In 1898, after being introduced to Impressionism, Matisse decided to spend the entire year painting how he really wanted to.
That “passion for color,” of course, developed into Fauvism. Alongside André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and other artists, Matisse fearlessly applied bright pigments to his landscapes and portraits, attracting negative reactions from the art world upon the exhibition of his work—first at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1905, and then at The Armory Show in New York and Chicago in 1913 (one American paper used the headline “Henry Hair Mattress Found Guilty of Every Artistic Sin on Calendar”).
Lesson #3: Surround yourself with things you love—they will inspire you
Lesson #4: Don’t let anything keep you from making art
Photo by Clifford Coffin/Condé Nast via Getty Images.