Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Authors
Books
Features
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • The Unknown Matisse
  • Written by Hilary Spurling
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780375711336
  • Our Price: $29.95
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - The Unknown Matisse

The Unknown Matisse

Written by Hilary SpurlingAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Hilary Spurling

The Unknown Matisse Cover

Bookmark,
Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - The Unknown Matisse
  • Email this page - The Unknown Matisse
  • Print this page - The Unknown Matisse
ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE PRAISE
Tags for this book (powered by Library Thing)
biography (31) art (20) matisse (10) painting (8) artists (7) france (6) non-fiction (4)
biography (31) art (20) matisse (10) painting (8) artists (7) france (6)
» see more tags
» hide
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Henri Matisse is one of the masters of twentieth-century art and a household word to millions of people who find joy and meaning in his light-filled, colorful images--yet, despite all the books devoted to his work, the man himself has remained a mystery. Now, in the hands of the superb biographer Hilary Spurling, the unknown Matisse becomes visible at last.

Matisse was born into a family of shopkeepers in 1869, in a gloomy textile town in the north of France. His environment was brightened only by the sumptuous fabrics produced by the local weavers--magnificent brocades and silks that offered Matisse his first vision of light and color, and which later became a familiar motif in his paintings. He did not find his artistic vocation until after leaving school, when he struggled for years with his father, who wanted him to take over the family seed-store. Escaping to Paris, where he was scorned by the French art establishment, Matisse lived for fifteen years in great poverty--an ordeal he shared with other young artists and with Camille Joblaud, the mother of his daughter, Marguerite.

But Matisse never gave up. Painting by painting, he struggled toward the revelation that beckoned to him, learning about color, light, and form from such mentors as Signac, Pissarro, and the Australian painter John Peter Russell, who ruled his own art colony on an island off the coast of Brittany. In 1898, after a dramatic parting from Joblaud, Matisse met and married Amélie Parayre, who became his staunchest ally. She and their two sons, Jean and Pierre, formed with Marguerite his indispensable intimate circle.

From the first day of his wedding trip to Ajaccio in Corsica, Matisse realized that he had found his spiritual home: the south, with its heat, color, and clear light. For years he worked unceasingly toward the style by which we know him now. But in 1902, just as he was on the point of achieving his goals as a painter, he suddenly left Paris with his family for the hometown he detested, and returned to the somber, muted palette he had so recently discarded.

Why did this happen? Art historians have called this regression Matisse's "dark period," but none have ever guessed the reason for it. What Hilary Spurling has uncovered is nothing less than the involvement of Matisse's in-laws, the Parayres, in a monumental scandal which threatened to topple the banking system and government of France. The authorities, reeling from the divisive Dreyfus case, smoothed over the so-called Humbert Affair, and did it so well that the story of this twenty-year scam--and the humiliation and ruin its climax brought down on the unsuspecting Matisse and his family--have been erased from memory until now.

It took many months for Matisse to come to terms with this disgrace, and nearly as long to return to the bold course he had been pursuing before the interruption. What lay ahead were the summers in St-Tropez and Collioure; the outpouring of "Fauve" paintings; Matisse's experiments with sculpture; and the beginnings of acceptance by dealers and collectors, which, by 1908, put his life on a more secure footing.

Hilary Spurling's discovery of the Humbert Affair and its effects on Matisse's health and work is an extraordinary revelation, but it is only one aspect of her achievement. She enters into Matisse's struggle for expression and his tenacious progress from his northern origins to the life-giving light of the Mediterranean with rare sensitivity. She brings to her task an astonishing breadth of knowledge about his family, about fin-de-siècle Paris, the conventional Salon painters who shut their doors on him, his artistic comrades, his early patrons, and his incipient rivalry with Picasso.

In Hilary Spurling, Matisse has found a biographer with a detective's ability to unearth crucial facts, the narrative power of a novelist, and profound empathy for her subject.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Henri Matisse often compared his development as a painter to the growth of a seed.

"It's like a plant that takes off once it is firmly rooted," he said, looking back at the end of his life: "the root presupposes everything else." He himself was rooted in northeastern France, on the edge of the great Flanders plain where his ancestors had lived for centuries before the convulsive social and industrial upheavals of the nineteenth century slowly prised them loose. His father's family were weavers. Henri Emile Benoît Matisse was born in a tiny, tumbledown weaver's cottage on the rue du Chêne Arnaud in the textile town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis at eight o'clock in the evening on the last night of the year, 31 December 1869. The house had two rooms, a beaten earth floor and a leaky roof. Matisse said long afterwards that rain fell through a hole above the bed in which he was born.

      His parents, who worked in Paris, were paying a New Year visit to their hometown. They called their first child Henri after his father, following a family tradition that went back four generations. The first Henri Matisse had been a linen-weaver in the nearby village of Montay in 1789, when the French Revolution abruptly halved demand from the court for the fine linens of Cambrésis. This ancestor, Henri Joseph Matisse, married a tanner's daughter from Le Cateau and moved with his loom to the tanners' quarter outside the mediaeval town walls, settling round about 1800 on the place du Rejet at the top of the rue du Chêne Arnaud: a patch of low-lying wasteland heavily flooded each year when the winter rains washed liquid mud down from the high ground on one side to meet water rising up through the tanneries lining the banks of the river Selle on the other. Hardship and adversity bred strong wills and stubborn resistance in the Matisse family. Henri Joseph's son, Jean Baptiste Henri, abandoned the humble weaver's trade to become a factory foreman in one of the mechanised woollen mills beginning to spring up in the town in the 1850s. His son in turn would leave home and abandon textiles altogether.

      This was Emile Hippolyte Henri Matisse, the painter's father, who found work in his twenties as a shop-boy in Paris. By January 1869, when he married Anna Héloïse Gérard, the daughter of another Cateau tanner, he had been promoted to trainee buyer in ladies' underwear. He worked for the Cour Batave on the brand-new boulevard Sébastopol, a highly fashionable store in a custom-built modern shopping complex specialising in lingerie, trousseaux, ladies' stockings, bodices, blouses, personal and household linen. This sort of job was a natural progression for the clever, ambitious son and grandson of weavers in a region that supplied the capital's apparently insatiable demand for novelties and fancy goods in the 1860s. Hippolyte Henri would take pride all his life in his thorough grounding at the Cour Batave, which served him well on regular buying trips to Paris long after he had moved back to set up his own business nearer home. It sharpened his eye for quality, confirmed his distaste for slack or shoddy performance, laid down the exacting standards by which he judged himself, his world, and especially his eldest son ever afterwards.

      Anna Gérard, who had also gone up to Paris to work in a hat-shop, was twenty-four when she married Hippolyte Henri Matisse, who was four years older. Warmhearted, outgoing, capable and energetic, she was small and sturdily built with the fashionable figure of the period: full breasts and hips, narrow waist, neat ankles and elegant small feet. She had fair skin, broad cheekbones and a wide smile. "My mother had a face with generous features, the highly distinctive traits of French Flanders," said her son Henri, who spoke always with particular tenderness of the sensitivity and the innate generosity reflected in his mother's character as in her looks. Throughout the forty years of her marriage, she provided unwavering, rocklike support to her husband and her sons.

      Hippolyte Henri's own parents had both died by the time he was twenty-five, leaving him with no immediate family except an elder sister married to a local weaver and a younger one working, like her sister-in-law, as a hat-maker in Paris. Anna herself belonged to a large and cohesive family of Gérards, established for three hundred years in and around the rue du Chêne Arnaud as tanners, furriers, glove-makers, leather-dressers and skin-merchants. Anna's father, Benoît Elie Gérard, dealt in hides from the family tannery as well as running a small farm on the rue des Arbalétriers where she was born in 1844, the fourth of his eight children. Her younger brother Emile--the first boy born after four older sisters--would mechanise and modernise the tanning works. The go-ahead Emile stood godfather to Anna's son Henri, who grew up surrounded by a watchful, protective network of aunts and uncles, first, second and third cousins, as well as more distant connections related by blood or marriage, all originally based in Le Cateau but spilling out increasingly in his own and his parents' generation into the surrounding countryside, several taking the train the hundred miles south to Paris to find jobs on a temporary or permanent basis.

      One of Anna's elder sisters had married a railwayman, François Mahieux, who switched to innkeeping and ended up running a hotel eighteen miles away at Bohain-en-Vermandois, where Hippolyte Henri's second cousin, Edouard Lancelle, ran a medical practice and doubled as the mayor's secretary. Cousin Lancelle lived with his family on the rue Peu d'Aise. The Mahieux ran the Golden Lion Hotel two streets away on the rue St-Antoine. Henri Matisse was eight days old when his parents moved with him to Bohain to take over a general store on the corner of the rue Peu d'Aise and the main street, called rue du Château. The shop sold everything from seeds to groceries, hardware and housepaints, although over the next few years most of the sidelines would be swallowed up by the seed-merchant's side of the business.

      The Matisse-Gérard partnership prospered (as did the Mahieux-Gérards at the Golden Lion) on the strength of Hippolyte Henri's business flair, his own and his wife's contacts, their joint commitment to strenuous, unremitting effort, backed up by her small dowry and his modest inheritance. On his father's death in 1865, Hippolyte Henri had inherited a one-third share in the tiny Matisse estate, consisting chiefly of the property on the rue du Chêne Arnaud, which passed, before or just after his marriage, from his family to Anna's. Her retired parents were living there by New Year's Eve, 1869, when their grandson Henri was born. Anna's father died there in his sixty-first year three months later, on 27 March, and on 29 March, as the family gathered for the funeral, a second baby was born in the same cramped cottage.

      This was Emile's first child, another Emile Gérard, cousin and almost exact contemporary of Henri Matisse. The two young fathers, starting out simultaneously on what proved to be highly successful parallel careers, stood godfather to one another's sons. The two boys grew up in a world that placed a high premium on enterprise, initiative, risk-taking, a willingness to experiment and to keep an open mind. Each was groomed to succeed his father at the head of a rapidly expanding business. Over the next twenty years the Bohain hardware store under Hippolyte Henri Matisse grew into a streamlined wholesale and retail operation with a fleet of delivery wagons supplying seed, fertiliser and fodder to beet-growers and transporters all over the surrounding plain. Emile Gérard meanwhile made a fortune by installing a tallow works alongside the tannery on the river Selle, shortly afterwards building a second factory to manufacture the French food industry's latest product, an imperial invention called margarine.

      The two brothers-in-law belonged to a breed of dynamic young businessmen who were turning away from the rural past all over France to build a brave new urban world. But the changes they dreamed of with such prodigious confidence were literally devastating. Henri Matisse was born just as the accelerating juggernaut of industrialisation and deforestation reached top speed in his native region. When his family settled on the rue du Château, Bohain was already halfway through its transformation from a sleepy weavers' village deep in the ancient forest of the Arrouaise to a modern manufacturing centre with ten thousand clanking looms installed in the town itself and the villages round about. The population, which had taken forty years to grow from two to four thousand before the large-scale installation of steam machinery in the 1860s, would very nearly double again in the twenty years before Matisse finally left home for Paris.

      The town's principal product was textiles but sugar-beet output also doubled in the first ten years of his life. Energetic clearance meant that the last pockets of surrounding woodland were cut down to make way for beet plants in 1869, the year of Matisse's birth. The windmills and belfries that traditionally dotted the rolling flatlands of the Vermandois were far outnumbered in his childhood by the smoking chimneys of sugar refineries and textile mills. The streams on these chalky downs--Bohain stood high in the centre of a triangle marking the sources of the Somme, the Selle and the Escaut--ran with dye and chemical refuse on leaving the towns. The streets of Bohain were slippery with beet pulp in autumn, and the air was rank all winter with the stench of rotting and fermenting beets. Visitors from the outside world in the 1870s and 1880s were shocked by the drabness of the town itself, and by the stark, treeless outlines of the newly denuded land round about. "Where I come from, if there is a tree in the way, they root it out because it puts four beets in the shade," Matisse said sombrely.

      The memories he recalled with pleasure from his boyhood in Bohain were mostly of the countryside. He remembered parting the long grass in spring to find the first violets, and listening to the morning lark above the beet fields in summer. In later life he never lost his feeling for the soil, for seeds and growing things. The fancy pigeons he kept in Nice more than half a century after he left home recalled the weavers' pigeon-lofts tucked away behind even the humblest house in Bohain. Matisse said that for all the exotic specimens in the palatial aviary specially constructed for him in the 1930s, the best songbirds were still the robin and the nightingale, which could not survive captivity. They sang freely in the copses and thickets round Bohain, and in the ruins of the mediaeval castle where he played as a boy within a stone's throw of his father's shop at 26 rue du Château.

Henri Matisse often compared his development as a painter to the growth of a seed.

"It's like a plant that takes off once it is firmly rooted," he said, looking back at the end of his life: "the root presupposes everything else." He himself was rooted in northeastern France, on the edge of the great Flanders plain where his ancestors had lived for centuries before the convulsive social and industrial upheavals of the nineteenth century slowly prised them loose. His father's family were weavers. Henri Emile Benoît Matisse was born in a tiny, tumbledown weaver's cottage on the rue du Chêne Arnaud in the textile town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis at eight o'clock in the evening on the last night of the year, 31 December 1869. The house had two rooms, a beaten earth floor and a leaky roof. Matisse said long afterwards that rain fell through a hole above the bed in which he was born.

      His parents, who worked in Paris, were paying a New Year visit to their hometown. They called their first child Henri after his father, following a family tradition that went back four generations. The first Henri Matisse had been a linen-weaver in the nearby village of Montay in 1789, when the French Revolution abruptly halved demand from the court for the fine linens of Cambrésis. This ancestor, Henri Joseph Matisse, married a tanner's daughter from Le Cateau and moved with his loom to the tanners' quarter outside the mediaeval town walls, settling round about 1800 on the place du Rejet at the top of the rue du Chêne Arnaud: a patch of low-lying wasteland heavily flooded each year when the winter rains washed liquid mud down from the high ground on one side to meet water rising up through the tanneries lining the banks of the river Selle on the other. Hardship and adversity bred strong wills and stubborn resistance in the Matisse family. Henri Joseph's son, Jean Baptiste Henri, abandoned the humble weaver's trade to become a factory foreman in one of the mechanised woollen mills beginning to spring up in the town in the 1850s. His son in turn would leave home and abandon textiles altogether.

      This was Emile Hippolyte Henri Matisse, the painter's father, who found work in his twenties as a shop-boy in Paris. By January 1869, when he married Anna Héloïse Gérard, the daughter of another Cateau tanner, he had been promoted to trainee buyer in ladies' underwear. He worked for the Cour Batave on the brand-new boulevard Sébastopol, a highly fashionable store in a custom-built modern shopping complex specialising in lingerie, trousseaux, ladies' stockings, bodices, blouses, personal and household linen. This sort of job was a natural progression for the clever, ambitious son and grandson of weavers in a region that supplied the capital's apparently insatiable demand for novelties and fancy goods in the 1860s. Hippolyte Henri would take pride all his life in his thorough grounding at the Cour Batave, which served him well on regular buying trips to Paris long after he had moved back to set up his own business nearer home. It sharpened his eye for quality, confirmed his distaste for slack or shoddy performance, laid down the exacting standards by which he judged himself, his world, and especially his eldest son ever afterwards.

      Anna Gérard, who had also gone up to Paris to work in a hat-shop, was twenty-four when she married Hippolyte Henri Matisse, who was four years older. Warmhearted, outgoing, capable and energetic, she was small and sturdily built with the fashionable figure of the period: full breasts and hips, narrow waist, neat ankles and elegant small feet. She had fair skin, broad cheekbones and a wide smile. "My mother had a face with generous features, the highly distinctive traits of French Flanders," said her son Henri, who spoke always with particular tenderness of the sensitivity and the innate generosity reflected in his mother's character as in her looks. Throughout the forty years of her marriage, she provided unwavering, rocklike support to her husband and her sons.

      Hippolyte Henri's own parents had both died by the time he was twenty-five, leaving him with no immediate family except an elder sister married to a local weaver and a younger one working, like her sister-in-law, as a hat-maker in Paris. Anna herself belonged to a large and cohesive family of Gérards, established for three hundred years in and around the rue du Chêne Arnaud as tanners, furriers, glove-makers, leather-dressers and skin-merchants. Anna's father, Benoît Elie Gérard, dealt in hides from the family tannery as well as running a small farm on the rue des Arbalétriers where she was born in 1844, the fourth of his eight children. Her younger brother Emile--the first boy born after four older sisters--would mechanise and modernise the tanning works. The go-ahead Emile stood godfather to Anna's son Henri, who grew up surrounded by a watchful, protective network of aunts and uncles, first, second and third cousins, as well as more distant connections related by blood or marriage, all originally based in Le Cateau but spilling out increasingly in his own and his parents' generation into the surrounding countryside, several taking the train the hundred miles south to Paris to find jobs on a temporary or permanent basis.

      One of Anna's elder sisters had married a railwayman, François Mahieux, who switched to innkeeping and ended up running a hotel eighteen miles away at Bohain-en-Vermandois, where Hippolyte Henri's second cousin, Edouard Lancelle, ran a medical practice and doubled as the mayor's secretary. Cousin Lancelle lived with his family on the rue Peu d'Aise. The Mahieux ran the Golden Lion Hotel two streets away on the rue St-Antoine. Henri Matisse was eight days old when his parents moved with him to Bohain to take over a general store on the corner of the rue Peu d'Aise and the main street, called rue du Chateau. The shop sold everything from seeds to groceries, hardware and housepaints, although over the next few years most of the sidelines would be swallowed up by the seed-merchant's side of the business.

      The Matisse-Gérard partnership prospered (as did the Mahieux-Gérards at the Golden Lion) on the strength of Hippolyte Henri's business flair, his own and his wife's contacts, their joint commitment to strenuous, unremitting effort, backed up by her small dowry and his modest inheritance. On his father's death in 1865, Hippolyte Henri had inherited a one-third share in the tiny Matisse estate, consisting chiefly of the property on the rue du Chêne Arnaud, which passed, before or just after his marriage, from his family to Anna's. Her retired parents were living there by New Year's Eve, 1869, when their grandson Henri was born. Anna's father died there in his sixty-first year three months later, on 27 March, and on 29 March, as the family gathered for the funeral, a second baby was born in the same cramped cottage.

      This was Emile's first child, another Emile Gérard, cousin and almost exact contemporary of Henri Matisse. The two young fathers, starting out simultaneously on what proved to be highly successful parallel careers, stood godfather to one another's sons. The two boys grew up in a world that placed a high premium on enterprise, initiative, risk-taking, a willingness to experiment and to keep an open mind. Each was groomed to succeed his father at the head of a rapidly expanding business. Over the next twenty years the Bohain hardware store under Hippolyte Henri Matisse grew into a streamlined wholesale and retail operation with a fleet of delivery wagons supplying seed, fertiliser and fodder to beet-growers and transporters all over the surrounding plain. Emile Gérard meanwhile made a fortune by installing a tallow works alongside the tannery on the river Selle, shortly afterwards building a second factory to manufacture the French food industry's latest product, an imperial invention called margarine.

      The two brothers-in-law belonged to a breed of dynamic young businessmen who were turning away from the rural past all over France to build a brave new urban world. But the changes they dreamed of with such prodigious confidence were literally devastating. Henri Matisse was born just as the accelerating juggernaut of industrialisation and deforestation reached top speed in his native region. When his family settled on the rue du Chateau, Bohain was already halfway through its transformation from a sleepy weavers' village deep in the ancient forest of the Arrouaise to a modern manufacturing centre with ten thousand clanking looms installed in the town itself and the villages round about. The population, which had taken forty years to grow from two to four thousand before the large-scale installation of steam machinery in the 1860s, would very nearly double again in the twenty years before Matisse finally left home for Paris.

      The town's principal product was textiles but sugar-beet output also doubled in the first ten years of his life. Energetic clearance meant that the last pockets of surrounding woodland were cut down to make way for beet plants in 1869, the year of Matisse's birth. The windmills and belfries that traditionally dotted the rolling flatlands of the Vermandois were far outnumbered in his childhood by the smoking chimneys of sugar refineries and textile mills. The streams on these chalky downs--Bohain stood high in the centre of a triangle marking the sources of the Somme, the Selle and the Escaut--ran with dye and chemical refuse on leaving the towns. The streets of Bohain were slippery with beet pulp in autumn, and the air was rank all winter with the stench of rotting and fermenting beets. Visitors from the outside world in the 1870s and 1880s were shocked by the drabness of the town itself, and by the stark, treeless outlines of the newly denuded land round about. "Where I come from, if there is a tree in the way, they root it out because it puts four beets in the shade," Matisse said sombrely.

      The memories he recalled with pleasure from his boyhood in Bohain were mostly of the countryside. He remembered parting the long grass in spring to find the first violets, and listening to the morning lark above the beet fields in summer. In later life he never lost his feeling for the soil, for seeds and growing things. The fancy pigeons he kept in Nice more than half a century after he left home recalled the weavers' pigeon-lofts tucked away behind even the humblest house in Bohain. Matisse said that for all the exotic specimens in the palatial aviary specially constructed for him in the 1930s, the best songbirds were still the robin and the nightingale, which could not survive captivity. They sang freely in the copses and thickets round Bohain, and in the ruins of the mediaeval castle where he played as a boy within a stone's throw of his father's shop at 26 rue du Chateau.


From the Hardcover edition.
Hilary Spurling

About Hilary Spurling

Hilary Spurling - The Unknown Matisse

Photo © Clare Kendall

Hilary Spurling was born in England and educated at Oxford University. She has been theater critic and literary editor of The Spectator and a book reviewer for The Daily Telegraph, and has written biographies of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Paul Scott. The first volume of her biography of Henri Matisse, The Unknown Matisse, was an Editors’ Choice book of The New York Times. Since its publication, Ms. Spurling has written and lectured extensively on Matisse and originated an exhibition about the importance of textiles in the artist’s life and work that opened at the Royal Academy in London in the spring of 2005 and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the summer of 2005.
Praise

Praise

"This book is extraordinary in revealing not only so much about Matisse that was previously unknown and unexpected, but also so much of real importance to an understanding of him and his art . . . Truly indispensable for anyone interested in Matisse, or in the milieu in which he lived and worked, or in the forces that shaped the art of this century--with a human dimension that is vividly drawn, utrterly compelling, and profoundly moving."
--John Elderfield, curator of the 1992 Matisse retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

"Hilary Spurling, most accomplished of biographers, sheds an entirely new light on the humiliations and failures that Henri Matisse had to overcome in order to develop into the greatest French painter of this century. Her account of Matisse's early years is as riveting as a novel by Zola."
--John Richardson, author of A Life of Picasso

"Besides being a first-rate scholar, Hilary Spurling is an artist in narrative who has unearthed a fascinating story and told it brilliantly. This is a terrific achievement."
--Michael Holroyd, author Bernard Shaw


From the Hardcover edition.

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: