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  • Writer's pictureLaurie Seban

Henri Matisse: Colorful Collage

Updated: Apr 1

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) did not grow up wanting to be an artist; he intended to be a lawyer. But when he fell ill and was bedridden for several months, he began to paint, and eventually moved to Paris to work as an artist.

As an artist, Matisse loved color—bright, pure color. He and fellow artist Georges Braque founded an artists group called the “fauves”—the beasts, so called because of the wild beastly color they used. Matisse was not interested in showing things as they actually were—he wanted people to take joy in the color harmonies he created—turquoise, magenta, teal, rose, and violet. Matisse worked in this style for over 30 years!

In 1937, Matisse was 71, and underwent surgery that left him in a wheelchair. Unable to paint, he adapted to his situation and began to draw on the walls—huge line drawings of figures that marched across the rooms of his studio. He also had assistants paint large sheets of color. He felt he was “carving color” as he cut directly into the sheets.

Matisse Drawing from Bed

He felt color had healing properties, and often brought his cut-outs to visit sick friends. Matisse’s doctors, however, felt like the colors were too strong, and cautioned the artist to wear sunglasses when working with them!

For 17 years, Matisse created his cut-out works—first pinned to the walls of his studio, then sold, still pinned, so he could always adjust at the last minute.

Polynesia, 1946

Swimming Pool, 1954

Matisse wanted to go to the pool from his studio in the South of France one day. It was too hot—so he created his own pool in the studio, filled with splashes of water, abbreviated shorthand forms and diving figures. (Check out this video from MoMA describing the cut-out and how the museum conserves it!)

Nuit de Noel, 1952

Nuit de Noel is a masterpiece cut-out, created in 1952 for Rockefeller Center in New York City (the maquette, or model, is at NY MOMA). It has a high rounded arch reminiscent of the windows found in churches—and also synagogues and mosques. It represents the night sky of a winter celebration: festive flowers and plants fill the bottom center in magenta, yellow, lime green and white, with repeating curves that give the sense of dance, movement, and anticipation. The top is capped with a dome dominated by a radiating moon with sparkling yellow and white stars sprinkled throughout. It is a celebration of color, movement and form in perfect harmony—just as Matisse loved.


PROJECT: Make a Matisse Paper Cut-Out


  • Painted Paper

  • White construction paper

  • glue sticks, scissors, pencil

  • bring cookie cutters to trace (flowers, leafs, gingerbread, hearts, trees, stars—also flowers or leaf shapes)


  • Paint paper—or you can do this as a project with the kids. Biocolors are BY FAR superior to tempera because of their luminosity and ability to blend. Allow enough time for paint to dry.

  • Cut paper into different shaped rectangles.

Project (you can use any Matisse as model—Nuit de Noel for holidays; Beasts of the Sea, The Ocean, etc.)

1. Distribute colored rectangles so students can make background. For younger kids, have them glue down background first, before next step.

2. Model cutting out squiggles, leaves, stars, pointing out the positive shapes –and negative shapes that can be used in cut-out. Encourage students to create their own shapes—using positives and negatives.

3. Have students experiment with cut shapes on top of rectangles. Older kids can glue down backgrounds, then shapes; younger kids just need to glue down shapes.


1.1 Perceive and describe rhythm and movement in works of art and in the environment.

1.5 Identify and describe elements of art in works of art, emphasizing line, color, shape/ form, texture, space, and value.

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