Share this article with a friend.

December 31, 2020

For information on enrollment and registration at Notre Dame, please visit the admissions section of our website here.

We recently interviewed Notre Dame faculty and alumni and asked them to talk about one of the most influential artists in the last 200 years and why a review of his life's work is perfect for today's uncertain times. 

Henri Émile Benoît Matisse (Dec. 31, 1869 – Nov. 3, 1954) was a French artist, known for both his use of color and his fluid and original draftsmanship. His mastery of the expressive language of color and drawing, displayed in a body of work spanning over a half-century, won him recognition as a leading figure in modern art.

Today, December 31, 2020, is the 151st anniversary of the birth of French artist Henri Matisse, arguably one of the most influential artists of the last 200 years and, along with Pablo Picasso, a painter who helped define a revolution in the visual arts during the first few decades of the 20th century.

But in many ways, Matisse's art also is the perfect antidote for the most recent 10 months of the 21st century.

“Matisse often is called the painter of happiness, and for once the legend is true,” said Aurélie Verdier, who commissioned Matisse: Like a Novel, a retrospective mounted at the Pompidou Centre in Paris running through February 22. “Matisse’s goal was to give happiness to people who looked at his work. His art is just what we need in this anxious, dark time.” 

The Snail (L'escargot) is a 1953 collage by Henri Matisse. It is pigmented with gouache on paper, cut and pasted onto a base layer of white paper measuring approximately 9 ft. x 9 ft. The piece is in the Tate Modern collection in London.

In 1908, Matisse himself wrote of his own aspirations: “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter — a soothing, calming influence on the mind.” 

Further, French poet Louis Aragon (1897-1982) weighed in years ago: “The optimism of Matisse is a gift to our ailing world.”

Sandy LewAllen, chair of NDPMA's art department and teacher in Notre Dame's upper school, noted that optimism when discussing the artist's later years as a debilitating illness prevented him from painting in the conventional sense and he moved on to the equally important and notably more optimistic body of work called cut paper collage.

Notre Dame art teachers Sandy LewAllen, left, Lauren Zajdel and Michelle Zimmerman said Matisse continues to have a profound influence on art and art education.

Not so coincidentally, that Matisse optimism also is on display in LewAllen's home as she has a copy of one of his works, Tree (1951), which, she says, is a reminder for her everyday that "in life, when one door closes, another will open." 

"What I also love about Henri Matisse is that he was a multi-faceted artist who was perhaps best known for painting, but was also a prolific draftsman, sculptor and printmaker," she said. "I appreciate an artist who works in different media and I'm drawn to Matisse's sense of adaptability. For example, when he could no longer stand at his easel to paint due to illness, he created a brand new technique."

Check out Notre Dame's visual arts program here.

Fauvism, more fans and composition

Alum Joe Borri ND'80, a successful painter himself, remembers being fully introduced to Matisse when he was studying art history at Northern Michigan University where he received his BFA. 

"Our professor, Wolfram Niessen, introduced us to many of the various art movements and the artists that populated them, and Matisse obviously was among them," he said. "Wolf wasn’t very fond of decorative work as he was a German sculptor, and as such, didn’t seem overly praiseworthy of Matisse’s work. But he couldn’t emphasize enough his contribution to the Modernist movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After seeing more and more of the work by Matisse, I, however, was totally impressed by his use of color and most importantly, his composition."

Joe Borri graduated from Notre Dame High School in 1980 and earned a BFA degree from Northern Michigan University. A true "Renaissance man," Borri is an author, painter, designer and caricaturist.

For alum Sophia Gunterman NDP'17, the impact Matisse had on fauvism, a style of painting favored by another group of early 20th-century artists, is what she most appreciates about him.

"Matisse's heavy influence on fauvism allowed for the freedom of colors to be used within a painting," said the current College for Creative Studies student. "In a time when Cubism was popular, Matisse rejected it and sought to use color as the foundation for his paintings and for its own form of expression."

Alum Sophia Gunterman NDP'17 currently is enrolled at the prestigious College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

Michelle Zimmerman, who teaches art at Notre Dame Lower School, said it was a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts as a 15 year old that first opened her eyes to the genius of Matisse.

"It was an immediate like for me," she said. "His raw colors and simplified figures showed me that imperfection had a place in the art world. His style, unlike the perfection of Renaissance painters, seemed 'doable' to me. I purchased two posters of his work that day and I still have them framed and hanging in my home."

Each year, Zimmerman also includes Matisse and his cut paper collage technique in the lesson plans for her lower school students.

At left, the Fauvist art movement was the inspiration for a Notre Dame Middle School art exhibition in 2012. Two years ago, Notre Dame Lower School artists created Matisse-inspired collages in Zimmerman's art class.

"For me, Matisse personifies the re-inventive nature of creativity," she said. "During his life he changed and adapted to his circumstances rather than allow himself to be limited by them. He was a lawyer at first, then became a painter and when he could no longer paint, he worked with colored paper shapes instead. My students who learn about Matisse always seem to be inspired by his willingness to take risks."

Painting with scissors

That willingness to take risks and try new creative directions also inspires Notre Dame Middle School visual arts and makerspace teacher Lauren Zajdel.

"Henri Matisse is best known as one of the major painting artists of the post-Impressionist era," said Zajdel. "But like many other artists of his time, he became afflicted with health problems that included a diminution of eyesight. To compensate for being partially blind and restricted to a wheelchair, Matisse's colorful style evolved to painting with scissors during his collage period." 

At the age of 77, Matisse began work on the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence (Chapel of the Rosary), often referred to as the Matisse Chapel or the Vence Chapel, a small Catholic chapel located in the town of Vence on the French Riviera. He spent more than four years working on the chapel, its architecture, stained glass windows, interior furnishings, murals and the priests' vestments. Some regard it as one of the great religious structures of the 20th century.

Zajdel noted that that style in the beginning wasn't taken as seriously as other creative techniques. 

"But I think it's important to point out — and I always do to my students — that no matter the age, a true artistic individual cannot just stop their need to create." 

Alum Borri adds that Matisse also was a significant influence in the design world, especially for the pioneering Modernists and those working in contemporary art during the mid-to-late 20th century.

“Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” was an exhibition on view in early 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

"The design of any Matisse work is never unintentional," said Borri, who also is a noted author and illustrator. "Although he preached being instinctual, whether it was his numerous paintings or the work he became more widely known for — paper cut outs — his work always had a careful design to it. Artists have borrowed from each other since the beginning of time and with Matisse it was no different. You can see his influence in the works of artists like Andy Warhol and even in brilliant graphic designers like Milton Glaser. 

"Matisse, in my opinion, is one of the most important figures of art in any century."

Joe Borri painting.

For information on enrollment and registration at Notre Dame, please visit the admissions section of our website here.

Comments or questions?

Follow Notre Dame on Twitter at @NDPMA.

About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. Notre Dame Preparatory School enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower schools enroll students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. All three schools are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the National Association of Independent Schools. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school’s home page at

Office of Marketing & Communications

Dan Lai
Director of Communications
Phone: 248-630-7721

Mike Kelly
Director of Marketing
Phone: 248-972-7346

Jim Sesi
Phone: 248-373-2171 ext. 7


Irish Magazine

Visual Identity Standards

Submit a story idea