In 1951, a show opened at MoMA in New York that LIFE magazine celebrated as “a monumental exhibit [that] crowns a lifetime of creativity by the 81-year-old modern master,” Henri Matisse. Here, recalling that 1951 show, LIFE.com offers a few photographs of Matisse — most of which never ran in LIFE — by the great Ukrainian-born photographer Dmitri Kessel.
“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, LIFE.com pays tribute 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 today.