One of the striking features of this brief but copiously illustrated biography is the fluency of its prose. Hayden Herrera moves easily from a presentation of Matisse’s childhood, to an explanation of his temperament, to discussions of his works. In other words, the transitions from Matisse’s expressed attitudes, to evocations of his background and family, and to the achievements of his major work form a seamless pattern, so deftly portrayed that credit must be given to the biographer’s astute handling of narrative and analysis, which too often seem to clash and impede each other in biographies of artists.
Herrera does not force her evidence or commit what might be called the genetic fallacy, prizing out the roots of Matisse’s greatness in his childhood. On the contrary, he seems to have been a rather passive youth, who gradually became attracted to painting after his mother had given him a set of paints as a gift. Matisse seems to have had a stubborn, even steely temperament, and a quiet but growing confidence in his talent, which he had to pursue in the face of his father’s hostile skepticism.
Herrera shows how Matisse began as an academic painter, learning conventional techniques and immersing himself in the tradition of Western art. Absorbing modernism quickly, however, he forsook perspective and adopted the modern artist’s credo, depicting the world as he saw it in vibrant color that often shimmered off of a flat surface rather than in the three-dimensional depth demanded by traditionalists. Like his great contemporary, Pablo Picasso, Matisse observed nature acutely but adapted it to reflect the nature of art, the character of human perception. As Herrera amply demonstrates, it was in his art that Matisse felt most alive and most faithful to reality.