LIFE With Matisse: Portraits of a Modernist Master, 1951

In 1951, Henri Matisse sits in the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France — a building he designed and decorated, and that he considered his life's masterpiece.
Dmitri Kessel—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Not originally published in LIFE. In 1951, Henri Matisse sits in the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France — a building he designed and decorated, and that he considered his life's masterpiece.
Art & Artists
'50s

On Tuesday, December 4, New York’s Metropolitan Museum will unveil a relatively small but, by all accounts, revelatory exhibition of works by one of the true giants of 20th-century Modernism. Comprised of 49 canvases, Matisse: In Search of True Painting focuses — as the show’s catalog has it — on Matisse’s tendency throughout his long career to “use his completed canvases as tools, repeating compositions in order to compare effects, gauge his progress, and, as he put it, ‘push further and deeper into true painting.’” This all comes more than five decades after a 1951 exhibition at MoMA celebrated in LIFE magazine as “a monumental exhibit [that] crowns a lifetime of creativity by the 81-year-old modern master.”

Here, recalling that 1951 show, and in celebration of the current exhibition at the Met (In Search of True Painting runs through March 2013), LIFE.com offers a few photographs of Matisse — most of which never ran in LIFE — by the great Ukrainian-born photographer Dmitri Kessel.

[MORE: See TIME.com's feature on "Old-School Photo Trickery" at the Met.]

“Over the past 50 years,” LIFE reminded its readers in its Nov. 26, 1951, issue, “Matisse has poured forth a profusion of joyous paintings which have given a startling new shape  and brilliance to the face of art and which have won him a top rank among the great modern masters, Picasso, Braque and [the today far less-well-known Georges] Rouault.”

Of the fastidious, bespectacled, quietly revolutionary artist who was once denounced as “more dangerous than absinthe,” LIFE wrote that, in his studio on the French Riviera, Matisse “continued to work diligently, absorbed in his quest of an art that ‘pure and calm, free of disturbing subject mater … a mean of soothing the soul …’”

All these years later, with the unveiling of this highly anticipated new exhibition at the Met, art lovers are again invited to consider and celebrate the results of that contrarian, decades-long quest — an approach to the creative life utterly, refreshingly free of the noise, hype and sensationalism evident in so much high-profile art made today.

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