He was a well-tailored man fretting with a paintbrush. They were models in harem pants, bare-breasted and lolling on carpeted banquettes in the torpid heat of Mediterranean afternoons. He frowned and worried his canvases, thinning a line, fleshing out a hip, brightening a flower or leaf. They gazed into the distance, grew bored, dozed off.

Out of the improbable relationship between an obsessive painter, Henri Matisse, and his daydreaming models came one of the most celebrated bodies of early 20th-century art, a selection of which opens Sunday at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA).

“Matisse: Masterworks From the Baltimore Museum of Art,” which runs through May 18, comes from an unlikely source: two wealthy sisters from Baltimore who amassed the world’s largest collection of the French master’s work.

A tightly focused ensemble that spans his whole career, from the first still lifes of his student days up to his death in 1954, the show concentrates on a time between the world wars when Matisse was known internationally but still wrangling with color, design and composition.

“When you see all the work together, you see the motifs — the seated women, the odalisques, the still lifes — that concerned him throughout his entire career,” said MIA assistant curator Erika Holmquist-Wall, who oversaw the presentation. “They’re very traditional motifs, but he was constantly building, pushing, expanding them. You can tell that he worked very hard to make his paintings look easy.”

All of the Baltimore art — 50 paintings and sculptures plus 30 lithographs and other prints — was bequeathed by Claribel and Etta Cone, daughters of German-Jewish immigrants whose family made its fortune in the textile business. They left the museum 500 Matisses along with a vast hoard of textiles, Impressionist paintings and images by Picasso, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and other European modernists.

Claribel (1864-1929) was trained as a doctor and worked as a pathologist; Etta (1870-1949) was a serious amateur musician who managed the family home and their 11 siblings. Strikingly independent, they began collecting art when an older brother gave Etta $300 to spruce up the house — money she promptly spent on five paintings by Theodore Robinson, an American disciple of Claude Monet.

Soon the sisters were making annual trips to Paris, where Gertrude Stein and her brothers introduced them to Picasso, Matisse and the bohemian intellectuals who frequented the Steins’ weekly salons and scrutinized the new art that crowded their walls.

“I was really taken with these ladies,” said Holmquist-Wall. “Even into the 1920s they had a Victorian sensibility and wore floor-length dresses with high collars. But they traveled to Europe and amassed a huge collection because they had the means and the friendships with artists. Once they made their way to Paris, and because they knew the Steins, I think their world just cracked wide open.”

The Minneapolis museum has augmented the Baltimore collection with its own rich hoard of Matisse work, including half a gallery of his paintings and sculpture, about two dozen prints and drawings and more than 20 illustrated books.

There’s also a choice display of paintings by Americans who studied with Matisse between 1907 and 1911, when he ran a small art school in Paris. On loan from the late Myron Kunin, the American pictures — by Arthur Carles, Marguerite Thompson Zorach, Arthur Dove, Alfred H. Maurer and Morgan Russell — vividly demonstrate the international influence of Matisse’s color and form.

A life in art

Arranged in loosely chronological order, the exhibit from the Cone collection opens with Matisse’s surprisingly interesting student work.

Born in 1869 and trained as a lawyer, he came to art late and by accident, when his mother gave him a box of paints as a diversion while he recovered from an appendicitis attack. He was hooked. Quitting his law-office job, he plunged into art, studying briefly and improbably with William Bouguereau, a purveyor of coy allegories, and Gustave Moreau, a neurotic symbolist. Neither painter’s influence is much in evidence, although Matisse’s enthusiasm for unusual colors beams out of even his early academic pieces, where a bright pink-and-green cup catches the eye in an 1899 still life and similar hues perk up an oil sketch of his wife convalescing after the birth of their son Jean that year.

While known chiefly as a painter, Matisse sculpted throughout his career, using clay to model torsos, figure out musculature and refine poses. Cast later in bronze, his sculptures read as rough, sensual sketches in 3-D. The MIA has nicely paired one of his bronzes with the Antoine-Louis Barye sculpture “Jaguar Eating a Hare,” which inspired it. Throughout the show, the many sculptures stand almost as diary entries for Matisse’s efforts to artfully distort the female anatomy, likening it to blossoming flowers, sturdy tree trunks and writhing, serpentine creatures.

In 1917 he began spending months at a time in Nice, where odalisques and harem girls come to the fore. For all their erotic regalia, Matisse’s women seem distinctly chaste.

Next come pictures that really illustrate his compositional struggles. The most fascinating is “Large Reclining Nude,” a 1935 painting whose many changes he documented in 22 engrossing photos. During the six months he worked on it, everything was in flux — the model’s torso stretched and thinned, grew melon breasts and lost them, switched heads with eye-popping speed. The bed on which she lay finally disappeared entirely beneath a flat, blue-tile ground against which she floats like an Amazon, a big, audacious essence of Eternal Woman with an amusingly small and very modern head.

A dream of serenity

By the 1940s, family troubles, world events and ill health forced changes in Matisse’s life and art.

He and his wife, Amélie, separated in 1939, after 41 years of marriage in which they had two sons, Jean and Pierre, and had raised Marguerite, his daughter from a previous liaison. When World War II came, Pierre was an art dealer in New York, but Jean and Marguerite were both involved in the French Resistance to the Nazi occupation. Marguerite was captured and tortured by the Gestapo but escaped from a train en route to a German prison camp and was rescued by colleagues in the Resistance.

Two operations for colon cancer in the early 1940s left Matisse confined to bed or a wheelchair. No longer able to paint, he began to make abstract designs from colorful bits of paper. Twenty of them were published in “Jazz,” a 1947 portfolio with which the Minneapolis show comes to an exuberant end.

The Cone sisters met Matisse in the early 1900s, but they didn’t begin collecting his works seriously until after he’d lost some of the 1905 sizzle that earned him and his friends the epithet Fauves, or “wild beasts.” So, while the Cones’ collection is colorful, there are no audacious green-faced women or dramatically un-naturalistic scenes. Instead, their collection celebrates the kind of art he apparently loved best.

“What I dream of,” he once wrote, “is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or disturbing subject-matter … something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue.”