The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908

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9780679434283: The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908

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.

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Review:

"Matisse was born in 1869 in northern France and grew up in Bohain-en-Vermandois, near the Belgian border, on the drab, cold, wet beet fields of French Flanders. The same area, culturally and geographically speaking, had produced Vincent van Gogh sixteen years before." Thus begins the first full biography of an artist who, more than any other, is associated with Mediterranean heat, brilliant color and light, and languid, luxurious interiors. As author Hilary Spurling points out, an open window is one of Matisse's frequent motifs. Given the climate of his youth, that image speaks more of escape than of the sea air of the French Riviera.

If all biographers wrote with Spurling's warmth, empathy, and intelligence, no one would likely want to read any other kind of book. The Unknown Matisse is thoroughly researched, with pages devoted to minutiae that Spurling imparts with wit and style, making every nuance of Matisse's early development fascinating. She tells too the story of Matisse's family life (Mme. Matisse risked her respectable reputation by adopting Henri's first, illegitimate daughter), his brilliant ideas about art, and the years it took for his paintings to find their rightful audience. It was her intention finally to give as much weight to Matisse's life as has been given to his work, but in the process of examining the man she sheds new light on the art as well. --Peggy Moorman

From the Publisher:

[Hilary Spurling] provides a fine sense not only of the external events of Matisse's life, but also of the inner drama of his development as an artist. This is an excellent biography; a major accomplishment. . .sure to be a landmark in the literature on Matisse.
--Jack Flam, ARTnews

A splendid work of deep research and intense concentration....Again and again, the reader fears for Matisse, as in a good novel: how will he get out of this hole, who will buy his work, what if he gives up?....Her second volume cannot arrive too soon.
--Julian Barnes, cover review, The New York Times Book Review

A triumph of research and writing, a work of literature worthy of its subject.
--Richard Dorment, The New York Review of Books

A superlative achievement, fully justifying its provocative title and successfully marrying scholarship of a very high order with a vivid, energetically paced text. While it will undoubtedly become an essential tool for any serious student of Matisse's work, it can also be confidently recommended to the general reader.
--Elizabeth Cowling, Times Literary Supplement

"This is a marvelous book--beautifully written, masterly in its research, and wonderfully wise in it depiction of character, circumstance and the vicissitudes of the artist's vocation."
--Hilton Kramer, The Washington Times

Lucidly and economically written--.Spurling displays a gift for finding the action or anecdote that neatly and succinctly illuminates some relationship or character--.It's thrilling to learn what Matisse was looking at, what he experimented with, endured and suffered on his way to becoming one of the great painters of our century. To read The Unknown Matisse is to be very glad that its author has made so serious, so entertaining and so successful an effort.
--Francine Prose, cover review, Washington Post Book World

Masterfully written--.With tremendous sensitivity to her subject, Spurling delves into Matisse's past with a historian's eye for detail and a fervor that give her narrative compelling force--.[She] excels by revealing the forces that shaped both the man and his aesthetic.
--Starred review in Kirkus Reviews

Remarkable--a gripping read--.The reader is as exhilarated as Matisse's biographer could possibly desire.
--Starred review in Publishers Weekly

Majestic--does just what Volume 1 of a biography should do--it makes you eager for Volume 2.
--Christine Temin, The Boston Sunday Globe

Spurling does an excellent job of setting Matisse within a complex family plan--.The psychological portrait she sketches vibrates in a way that explains much of the seeming contradiction in the life of the artist.
--Jonathan Levi, Los Angeles Times

[Hilary Spurling's] book is an illumination, not only in its unraveling of the obscure life of a great artist, but as an example of the coming of age of a new sort of biography: a finely-tuned psychological drama of a self-doubting imagination at work over a lifetime--.It is a mesmeric portrait, at once satisfying and tantalising as we await Volume 2, of the making of an artist.
--Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times

This majestic account--gains immeasurably from Hilary Spurling's investigations into Matisse's social background--.She can and does make us understand the torment and violence of feeling which drove Matisse to seek and eventually find his own visual vocabulary. There is no excuse, now, to mistake the tranquillity of the paintings for tranquillity of life. She has given us a new frame through which to view the man and his art.
--Julian Mitchell, Literary Review, London

This first, thrilling volume is a triumph of sympathy and tact, always striking the right tone. It is unfaultable--as good as Richardson's Picasso, perhaps even more impressive. [Hilary Spurling] has lived up to her own daunting standards and produced something to rival her Ivy Compton-Burnett. As anyone who has read that will agree, there can be no higher praise for any biography.
--Philip Hensher, The Spectator, London

One of the chief joys of this account is that the man who emerges from it so roundly is not the usual absinthe-spilling, bed-hopping, wife-betraying, modernist adolescent, but a melancholy and mature presence, a true revolutionary driven not by whim or fashions, but by convictions so profound that this essentially good man was prepared to betray anything and anyone for them, including I suppose, his family--Hilary Spurling traces his progress with care and warmth.
--Waldemar Janusczczak, The Sunday Times, London

Magnificent--.The purpose of this biography is triumphantly achieved.
--Martin Gayford, The Sunday Telegraph, London

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