Magazine article New Criterion

The Unknown Matisse A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908

Magazine article New Criterion

The Unknown Matisse A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908

Article excerpt

With the second volume of John Richardson's great Picasso biography already out, it was only a matter of time before Matisse (1869-1954.) received equal treatment. Hilary Spurling--a London-based theater critic, literary editor, book reviewer, and biographer--has met the challenge admirably with her book, whose fluidity, depth of research, and level of detail are awe-inspiring.(1) While Spurling does not attempt to do the intense pictorial analysis or to make the art historical references that Richardson does--"This book is a biography, not a work of art history" she writes in the preface--she provides an extraordinarily rich and fascinating context for understanding Matisse's art and dispels some of the myths and assumptions about him. Her book reveals the "unknown" Matisse, the man not understood by a study of his paintings alone.

The most remarkable thing that comes across about Matisse's early period is just how undistinguished it was, especially in terms of art. This genius was definitely a late bloomer. His ambitions as a youth were to be a clown or horseman. He was a gifted marksman and violinist. In 1887, Matisse left Bohain in the north of France near the Belgian border, and headed to Paris to study law. He apparently never even set foot in the Louvre during this period. Not until age twenty, while convalescing in a hospital from a hernia (probably caused by carrying heavy grain sacks in his father's seed store), did Matisse dabble with some paints and discover his true calling in life.

Matisse's involvement with the world of art did not come easily. His formal training began in Paris in 1891 with a brief period of study under Bouguereau, the famous academic artist. Matisse failed the entrance examination at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts but managed to enter through the back door; the great Symbolist Gustave Moreau was a new teacher who accepted students regardless of their examination results. Matisse studied for six important years with Moreau, an unconventional teacher who raised suspicion among his colleagues. "[Moreau] planted question marks in our minds" Matisse later recounted. Goya's paintings were also particularly influential: "I believed I would never be able to paint because I didn't paint like the others. Then I saw Goya at Lille. That was when I understood that art could be a language; I thought that I could become a painter." Soon afterwards, the Louvre became his true school. "I was a student of the galleries of the Louvre" he asserted. But, Matisse was still taking art classes at age thirty, at the Academie Julian where he was heckled by the younger students as an out-of-place old timer. Indeed, it appears that few people had high hopes or expectations for Matisse. According to Spurling's account, people in his town thought he was an imbecile, a failure who was confirming everyone's worst fears. Matisse himself was plagued by self-doubts and a lack of confidence exacerbated by his father's concerns about his abilities. Matisse did not have visions of grandeur, only hopes of eking out a living. His career as an artist was not truly launched until 1905, when he was thirty-five years old.

Spurling provides heart-wrenching accounts of the grinding, debilitating poverty that Matisse endured for the first fifteen years of his career. His wife Amelie and daughter Marguerite would scrape paint off canvases so that he could reuse them. This is a revelation, for it is at odds with our image of Matisse as a well-dressed and comfortable looking bourgeois gentleman who was headed for a career in law. This information opens Matisse's art up to new interpretations. Rather than seeming like rich, appealing reflections of a privileged life--as in Matisse's legendary quote where art is meant to be "something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue"--his art can now seem to be as escapist as that of his anarchist Neo-Impressionist artist friends Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, and Maximilien Luce. …

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