Activation of hepatic stellate cells (HSC) is a central event in the pathogenesis of liver fibrosis during chronic liver injury. We examined the expression of retinoic acid (RAR) and retinoid X receptors (RXR) during HSC activation and evaluated the influence of natural and synthetic retinoic acids (RA) on the phenotype of culture-activated HSC. The expression of the major RAR/RXR subtypes and isoforms was analyzed by Northern hybridization. Presence of functional receptor proteins was established by gel shift analysis. Retinoic acids, RAR, and RXR selective agonists and an RAR antagonist were used to evaluate the effects of retinoid signalling on matrix synthesis by Northern blotting and immunoprecipitation, and on cell proliferation by BrdU incorporation. The 9-cisRA and synthetic RXR agonists reduced HSC proliferation and synthesis of collagen I and fibronectin. All-trans RA and RAR agonists both reduced the synthesis of collagen I, collagen III, and fibronectin, but showed a different effect on cell proliferation. Synthetic RAR agonists did not affect HSC proliferation, indicating that ATRA inhibits cell growth independent of its interaction with RARs. In contrast, RAR specific antagonists enhance HSC proliferation and demonstrate that RARs control proliferation in a negative way. In conclusion, natural RAs and synthetic RAR or RXR specific ligands exert differential effects on activated HSC. Our observations may explain prior divergent results obtained following retinoid administration to cultured stellate cells or to animals subjected to fibrogenic stimuli.