Matisse the Master

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Since his death in 1954, Henri Matisse has been largely ignored by potential biographers. Hilary Spurling’s is the first major account of the life of this artist. Matisse, often neglected by a public and by other artists who failed to understand his work, was considered by many too dull and his work too shallow to be an appropriate subject for full biographical treatment.

Spurling, whose account of Matisse’s life is challenging and fascinating, has shown that those who belittled her subject were quite wrong. Matisse once said that if the true story of his life were ever recorded fully and truthfully, it would amaze everyone. To a considerable extent, readers of this biography will experience some of the amazement of which Matisse spoke.

In Matisse the Master, the second and final volume of her biography, Hilary Spurling continues to describe neglect and occasional antagonism shown toward Matisse in Paris’s art circles. One early champion of his work was Pablo Picasso, who became Matisse’s lifelong friend. Not only was Picasso able to glimpse into the turmoil from which many of Matisse’s creations erupted, but he also came to look upon Matisse as one might an elder brother. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship from which Picasso derived significant artistic benefits. Spurling suggests that Picasso veered into cubism largely as a result of his exposure to some of Matisse’s early paintings. Ironically, the influential Parisian art world looked upon Picasso as a revolutionary painter but dismissed much of Matisse’s work as decorative art, lacking depth and essentially dull.

Spurling’s research in the Matisse correspondence, to which his survivors gave her unrestricted access, led her to the conclusion that Matisse was one of the most fluent and effective letter writers of the twentieth century. He wrote to his wife nearly every day whenever the two were apart, and he also carried on a colossal correspondence with other family members and friends. He reserved at least an hour each day for his correspondence, resulting in a vast archive of letters that, according to Spurling, could fill ten volumes.

The Matisse that Spurling depicts was at times a seething volcano within. He sometimes dressed badly, in a worn black sheepskin coat. However, Spurling observes, “As his paintings grew bolder and more disturbing, his dress and manner became quieter and more restrained.” If a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality lurked within him, art became his means of releasing his more destructive forces. Spurling also notes, “The figures on his canvas grew beneath his brush into a great elemental surge of release and liberation. At times he seemed to be unleashing forces” that “frightened even him.”

Clearly, painting was Matisse’s means of controlling something within him that was at heart explosive and even terrifying. His surface demeanor changed as he found artistic relief and, in a very real way, transferred his inner strife to paintings that many viewers found profoundly disturbing. When Spurling chose to use the term “the conquest of colour” as a part of her subtitle, she might with equal validity have chosen, “the conquest of demons,” because through his art and particularly through the intensity of his colors, Matisse was controlling, even killing, his inner, personal demons.

As he aged, Matisse dealt with these demons much better than he had in his earlier life; they seemed to trouble him less as he became increasingly obsessed with color, enthralled with the power inherent in it. Through his experiments with color, he was able to think more clearly. He learned a valuable and necessary lesson: “to manipulate without danger the explosives that are colours” (Matisse’s italics).

The young Matisse was torn between music and art. He played the violin and loved music. When he was twenty, however, his mother gave him his first box of paints. Spurling describes this as the turning point in Matisse’s life. She refers to this moment as “the great animal uprush of feeling” that this first...

(The entire section is 1677 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The Christian Science Monitor 97 (September 13, 2005): 14, 16.

The Economist 374 (March 12, 2005): 79.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 11 (June 1, 2005): 628.

Library Journal 130, no. 13 (August 1, 2005): 82-83.

New Statesman 134 (March 28, 2005): 50-51.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (September 4, 2005): 7.

The New Yorker 81, no. 25 (August 29, 2005): 78-83.

Smithsonian 36 (October, 2005): 72-80.

The Times Literary Supplement, April 1, 2005, pp. 3-4.

Vogue 194, no. 9 (September, 2005): 579-580.