The Unknown Matisse
Hilary Spurling was educated at Oxford University and lives in London, England. She writes on literature and theater for the British newspapers The Spectator and The Telepgraph and has also written a biography of the English writer Ivy Compton-Burnett.
Even before his death in 1954 at the age of eighty-four, Henri Matisse was greatly admired throughout the world. The popular image of Henri Matisse is that of a dignified and restrained painter who worked assiduously in his studios and produced extraordinarily refined, colorful, and beautiful paintings for well over six decades. Many years after his death his paintings are still held in the highest esteem, as was demonstrated by the very well-attended Matisse exhibition in 1992 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which included paintings from museums and private collections from many different countries. Near the end of his life, people considered him to be the greatest French painter of his age.
He was not only a gifted painter, but he also created exquisite sculptures and even works of religious inspiration. He described his murals and stained-glass windows in the Chapel of St. Dominic in the southern French city of Vence, which was consecrated in 1951, as an extension to the realm of religion of his earlier experiments with light and color. Matisse was born and reared a Catholic, but he did not practice his faith for many years. He never explained his reasons for agreeing to design both a Catholic chapel and chasubles for its priests. It is entirely possible that this represented an effort on his part to reconcile himself with the church of his childhood, but Matisse was too discreet to discuss his motivation for working on the chapel in Vence.
Throughout his long artistic career, Matisse did not like to talk to reporters about his art or his family. His friends thought that he was very shy, whereas his critics viewed him as aloof. Whatever his motivations may have been, Matisse considered it very important to preserve his privacy. Spurling explains quite clearly that Matisse had both personal and professional reasons for his distrust of public scrutiny in newspapers and art journals. His early years are not well known to general readers, and this is why Spurling chose the title of The Unknown Matisse for her biography of the first half of his long life. His paintings from this period are famous, but details about his personal life were not readily available to readers until Spurling’s well- researched biography.
Like many artists, Matisse was born to a relatively poor family. His parents, Hippolyte-Henri and Anna, owned a small seed store. They were visiting their hometown of Le Cateau-Cambrésis, France when Henri, their first child, was born on December 31, 1869. After Anna’s recovery from childbirth, the three Matisses returned to Bohain, a small French village near the Belgian border where their shop was located. Bohain was situated in an industrialized but economically depressed region of France. Henri’s parents assumed that he would work in their store, but things turned out differently. After his high school studies in St. Quentin, Henri moved to Paris with the intention of studying law, but his main interest soon became art.
While in Paris, Matisse tried unsuccessfully to paint in the academic and sentimental style that was then in favor. The wealthy Parisian painter William Bougereau even told the young Matisse that he would never become a successful painter. Bougereau’s prediction seemed to be confirmed when Matisse was rejected for admission to the prestigious, but very conservative, École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. This rejection, however, simply served to persuade Matisse that he needed to discover his own style in painting and not to try to imitate others.
Matisse then became acquainted with the aging French painter Gustave Moreau, who encouraged him to seek his own style through the careful study of masterpieces in Parisian museums. Moreau believed that Matisse needed exposure to a wide variety of artistic styles so that he could develop his own approach to painting. By the mid-1890’s, Matisse was creating effective but fairly somber portraits, but he had not yet begun to use the very bright colors for which he would soon become famous.
Accompanied by his mistress Camille Joblaud, who was also the mother of his first child, Marguerite, Matisse spent the summers of 1895 and 1896 on...
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