Synopses & Reviews
"If my story were ever to be written down truthfully from start to finish, it would amaze everyone," wrote Henri Matisse. It is hard to believe today that Matisse, whose exhibitions draw huge crowds worldwide, was once almost universally reviled and ridiculed. His response was neither to protest nor to retreat; he simply pushed on from one innovation to the next, and left the world to draw its own conclusions. Unfortunately, these were generally false and often damaging. Throughout his life and afterward people fantasized about his models and circulated baseless fabrications about his private life.
Fifty years after his death, Matisse the Master (the second half of the biography that began with the acclaimed The Unknown Matisse) shows us the painter as he saw himself. With unprecedented and unrestricted access to his voluminous family correspondence, and other new material in private archives, Hilary Spurling documents a lifetime of desperation and self-doubt exacerbated by Matisse's attempts to counteract the violence and disruption of the twentieth century in paintings that now seem effortlessly serene, radiant, and stable.
Here for the first time is the truth about Matisse's models, especially two Russians: his pupil Olga Meerson and the extraordinary Lydia Delectorskaya, who became his studio manager, secretary, and companion in the last two decades of his life.
But every woman who played an important part in Matisse's life was remarkable in her own right, not least his beloved daughter Marguerite, whose honesty and courage surmounted all ordeals, including interrogation and torture by the Gestapo in the Second World War.
If you have ever wondered how anyone with such a tame public image as Matisse could have painted such rich, powerful, mysteriously moving pictures, let alone produced the radical cut-paper and stained-glass inventions of his last years, here is the answer. They were made by the real Matisse, whose true story has been written down at last from start to finish by his first biographer, Hilary Spurling.
"The first volume of Spurling's magisterial biography, The Unknown Matisse, covered his evolution into a painter. This second volume opens with his adjusting to the status albeit controversial of master. At 40, Matisse found himself with both the freedom to paint and the burden of a reputation that drew enemies, disciples and skeptics into his working life. This shift from obscurity to notoriety had less impact on Matisse's work than on his personal relationships, especially his marriage to the single-minded Amélie, a bond that became saturated, for better and worse, with his achievements. Matisse's other relationships with his daughter, Marguerite, his son, Pierre, his model and factotum Lydia Dylectorskaya and his patron Etta Cone among others were likewise compounded of dedication and turmoil. The work, meanwhile, took its own course, whether mutating through a single epic piece or proliferating in new media, through two world wars and an absolute transformation in the tenets of and expectations for art. Spurling's chief source is a huge but largely untapped collection of correspondence, on which she draws very deftly to convey the mood and tone of various sojourns in Paris, Nice, Tangiers, Tahiti and elsewhere. In addition to 24 pages of color plates, the book is peppered with b&w photographs, portraits and sketches. Spurling's rich, flexible style is well attuned to the rigors and flights of Matisse's creative life. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A transcendent portrayal of a man who pursued light in a world dark with horror." Booklist (Starred Review)
"...Spurling creates an unusually detailed account of the painter's private life and the struggles surrounding his development as an artist." Library Journal
"...Spurling is exceptional at capturing Matisse's personality and his interests, those crucial elements to understanding his output, and she ably dramatizes his final years....Rich and colorful, if somewhat bulky, tribute to a visionary." Kirkus Reviews
"This biography presents much more than a glimpse behind the scenes. It discloses a ruthlessly dedicated career, a massive determination, and, by giving flesh to the hidden shadows of the man, it provokes a stimulatingly fresh look at his art..." Christian Science Monitor
"Spurling writes with a welcome mix of appropriate admiration and cool dispassion; her sentences are models of clarity and compression. But finally what makes her book so valuable is the information it provides on the paintings themselves." Newsday
"I am certain, after following her intricate lead through Matisse's trials, errors and triumphs, that no artistic enterprise, and certainly no pictorial ambition, in the 20th century can escape being measured against what Matisse achieved.... " New York Times
"Gracefully written and beautifully illustrated....[S]erves as an indispensable guide to understanding one of the 20th Century's most innovative and enigmatic artists." Chicago Tribune
"Spurling's absorbing biography celebrates a chronic insomniac who...continued to create transcendent, life-affirming work." Washington Post
"[W]ritten with unfailing grace, clarity and darting insight." Los Angeles Times
"Spurling's two volumes...compose the greatest biography yet written of a modern painter." Boston Globe
With unprecedented and unrestricted access to his family correspondence, and other new material in private archives, Spurling documents a lifetime of desperation and self-doubt exacerbated by Matisse's attempts to counteract the violence of the 20th century in paintings.
Published 50 years after his death, this is the first biography of Henri Matisse to accurately portray the man and his work. Matisse the Master
reverses the standard view of the painter, revealing a generous, turbulent, and passionate character quite unlike the buttoned-up image of popular myth. During her ten years of research, Hilary Spurling conducted interviews with Lydia Delectorskaya and many others who knew Matisse, including family members, to flesh out her findings. She gained unrestricted access to the private Matisse archive, including the previously unseen voluminous family correspondence. Drawing on literally hundreds of Matisse's letters, sketches, and postcards, Ms. Spurling reveals many previously unpublished facts and aspects of his life, including:
- The conflict between life and art is at its fiercest in the story of Matisse's marriage, the almost intolerable pressures that precipitated his wife's breakdown, and the tempestuous scenes that led to their official separation in 1939.
- The quality of his relationships, both warm and troubled, with his wife and children, especially during those periods when he was away from them because of travels, wartime, illness, and deterioration of the marriage.
- The isolation and incomprehension Matisse endured for most of his life in the face of hostility from the press, the public, and often the art world as well.
- His titanic struggles to reach his artistic goals in the face of public and family opposition, encroaching illness, and political turmoilthe astonishing degree to which he was the exact opposite of the figure of public myth: the colorist lolling about painting nudes and flowers in a hedonistic paradise.
- The dramatic long-running family saga of his relations with his three children, the support they gave him, and the price they paid for their lifelong commitment to him and to his work, including their marital difficulties (and disasters).
- The truth about Matisse's models, especially two extraordinary Russians: his pupil, Olga Meerson, and the beautiful Lydia Delectorskaya, who became his companion in the last two decades of his life.
- His response as a man and an artist to France's appalling losses in World War I; to the humiliation of defeat and German occupation in World War II when he lived in the Vichy region while his son Jean, his wife, and his daughter were involved in Resistance activities in the Occupied Zone; to the persecution of Jews by the Vichy regime; and to his daughter's imprisonment by the Gestapo.
- The countless letters he exchanged with his wife and children, amounting to a daily or weekly journal, decorated with absurd cartoons of himself in the margins, and showing an intensely human and humorous side largely unknown or discounted until now.
- His deeply informed opinions of other artists' work, information on his own working methods, and the precise progress of specific paintings and sculptures (in letters to other artists, dealers, and collectors in France, England, the United States, and Russia).
- His long and complex relationship with Picasso, who recognised Matisse all his life as his only serious rival.
- His touching friendship with the aged Renoir that sustained Matisse at a crucial turning point in his career.
- His successive love affairs as a traveller with Tangier, the US, and Tahiti.
- His nightmarish run-ins with Dr. Albert Barnes over the painting of the Dance mural for the Barnes Foundation this time told from Matisse's perspective.
About the Author
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.