Born Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse in Le Cateau, Picardie, France, he grew up in Bohain-en-Vermandois. In 1887 he went to Paris to study law. After gaining his qualification he worked as a court administrator in Cateau Cambresis. Following an attack of appendicitis he took up painting during his convalescence. After his recovery, he returned to Paris in 1891 to study art at the Académie Julian and became a student of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau.
Influenced by the works of Edouard Manet, Paul Signac and Paul Cézanne he painted in the Fauvist manner, becoming known as a leader of that movement. His first exhibition was in 1901 and his first solo exhibition in 1904. His fondess for bright and expressive colour became more pronounced after he moved southwards in 1905 to work with André Derain and spent time on the French Riviera, his paintings marked by having the colours keyed up into a blaze of intense shades and characterized by flat shapes and controlled lines, with expression dominant over detail. The decline of the Fauvist movement after 1906 did nothing to affect the rise of Matisse; he had moved beyond them and many of his finest works were created between 1906 and 1917 when he was an active part of the great gathering of artistic talent in Montparnasse.
In 1941 he was diagnosed with cancer and following surgery he soon needed a wheelchair; this did not stop his work however, but as increased weakness made an easel impossible he created cut paper collages called papiers découpés, often of some size, which still demonstrated his eye for colour and geometry.
Working in a number of modes, but principally as a painter, he is considered one of the most significant artists of the early 20th century. Unlike many artists, he achieved international fame and popularity already during his lifetime. From his early shows in Paris, he attracted collectors and critics.
Today, a Matisse painting can sell for as much as US$17 million. In 2002, a Matisse sculpture, "Reclining Nude I (Dawn)," sold for US$9.2 million, a record for a sculpture by the artist.
His works include: