• Steven Brower

The Graphic Design Work of Henri Matisse

This is the first in a series of unexpected designers.

Recently one of my grad students told me how the renowned artist Henri Matisse was hired by the publisher George Macy to illustrate a limited edition of 1500 of James Joyce’s Ulysses, concurrent with the book’s initial mid-1930s publication. So the story went, rather than read the work Matisse chose to illustrate Homer’s Odyssey instead. Intrigued I decided to explore further. You can read more about it here, but what caught my fancy was the cover Matisse designed for the tome. The leather bound foil stamped case cover was unlike anything I had ever seen by this artist prior.

Cover for James Joyce’s Ulysses, 1935.

French artist Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse was born in 1869. Alongside Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp he helped redefine modern art in the 20th century. Perhaps best known to the general public as a painter, he also worked in sculpture and collage. With failing health and bed bound late in life he turned to cut paper collage.

While most would be familiar with his cover for his own book of paper collages Jazz, it is interesting to note that Matisse frequently designed covers for other authors and magazines as well. One such case is his cover for photographer Henri Cartier Bresson’s 1952 book The Decisive Moment. In an act of artistic hubris Matisse created a cover that solely displays his own art and hand-lettering sans a hint of photography.

Dustcover, 1947

Slipcase, 1947

Matisse spent his final years designing other covers. These include the 1946 edition Lettres Portugaises (Portuguese Letters), credited to the 17th-century Franciscan nun Mariana Alcoforado, and the1952 biography of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, for a limited edition of 380 copies. It also included 8 original lithos, two as the endpapers and the other six within the interior. Two years prior he designed a limited edition of the fifteenth century French poet Charles d’Orléans, a work Matisse began in 1943, interrupted by the war. All limited editions of 1200 were signed and numbered by Matisse in pencil on the frontispiece lithograph. Today it sells for upwards of $9000.


He also designed several magazine covers and posters throughout his career. For the later he would leave space for others to place set type, yet there are others that feature his distinctive hand-lettering.

Matisse died in 1954 at the age of 84 in Nice, France.

Next up: Picasso!

Typography is one of the most vital keys to successful design—and Print’s Typography & Lettering Awards is here to celebrate it. Enter your best lettering or typographic work today.

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