Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse was born in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, Nord, France and grew up in Bohain-en-Vermandois, Picardie, France. In 1887 he got a job as a court administrator in Le Cateau-Cambrésis after gaining his qualification for law school in Paris.

In 1889 he began painting when his mother had brought him art supplies to help him recover after an attack of appendicitis. He promptly decided to become an artist which bitterly disappointed his father. In 1891, he returned to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian and became a student of William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Gustave Moreau.

He began by painting still-lifes and landscapes in the traditional Flemish style. He copied four Chardin paintings in the Louvre as a student. In 1896 he exhibited five oil paintings in the salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and the state bought two of his paintings. In 1897 and 1898, he visited the painter John Peter Russell on the island Belle Île off the coast of Brittany. Russell introduced him to Impressionism and to the work of Vincent van Gogh, a good friend of Russell who was completely unknown at the time, and from then on, Matisse's style changed completely.

Matisse was influenced by the works of Nicolas Poussin, Antoine Watteau, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Edouard Manet, and the post-Impressionists Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Signac, and also by Auguste Rodin, and Japanese art. Matisse immersed himself in the work of others and got himself in deep debt from buying work from many of the painters he admired.

He purchased a plaster bust by Rodin, a painting by Gauguin, a drawing by van Gogh, and most importantly, Cézanne's Three Bathers. In 1898, he went to London to study the paintings of J. M. W. Turner and then went on a trip to Corsica.

His model Caroline Joblau was the mother of his daughter Marguerite, born in 1894. In 1898 he married Amélie Noellie Parayre and they raised Marguerite along with two sons of this marriage, Jean who was born in 1899 and Pierre who was born in 1900. Marguerite often served as a model for Matisse and is a favorite subject among collectors.

His first one-man exhibition at Vollard's in 1904 was a dismal financial failure. His fondness for bright and expressive colour became more pronounced after he moved southwards in 1905 to work with fauvist André Derain -- he was inspired by the colors he found along the French Riviera. The paintings of this period are characterized by flat shapes and controlled lines, with expression dominant over detail.

In 1905, Matisse and a group of artists now known as "Fauves" exhibited together in a room at the Salon d'Automne. The paintings expressed emotion with wild, often dissonant colours, without regard for the subject's natural colours. Matisse showed Open Window and Woman with the Hat at the Salon.

The painting most singled out for critical attack was Woman with a Hat, which had been bought by Gertrude and Leo Stein which encouraged Matisse, who was suffering from deep clinical suicidal depression due to negative critical reviews of his work. One of his paintings was burned in effigy, and the result was even deeper depression and demoralization. He almost quit painting at this time.

Sometime in 1904 he met Pablo Picasso, who was 12 years younger. They became life-long friends as well as rivals and are often compared; one key difference between them is that Matisse drew and painted from nature, while Picasso was much more inclined to work from imagination. The subjects painted most frequently by both artists were women and still life, with Matisse more likely to place his figures in fully rendered interiors. Matisse and Picasso were first brought together at the Paris salon of Gertrude Stein and her life-partner Alice B. Toklas. His fame today is largely due to the patronage of the Stein family.