"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 Publishers Weekly
Despite Matisse's prestige in the annals of 20th-century art, there has been no biography published for the general reader until this hefty first of two volumes. "Unknown" as much for that omission as for his family's "invincible discretion," Matisse has been allowed to face posterity as a less interesting, less dynamic character than some of his contemporaries. It is no surprise, then, that the stock techniques of sympathetic biography seem a bit more defensive than usual here as Spurling (author of Ivy: The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett) tries to counter her subject's reputation as the prickliest, stodgiest hedonist ever to lift a paintbrush. Challenging conventional views of Matisse that acknowledge his greatness as an artist "while simultaneously belittling him as a human being," Spurling offers anecdote after anecdote illustrating his quaint mischievousness and selfless encouragement of other artists. She does a remarkable job of evoking the northern textile town of Bohain-en-Vermandois, where Matisse first assimilated the stringent demands of survival and acquired a reciprocal appreciation of luxury and irreverence. Still, when he decided at age 20 to become a painter, it was as drastic a rebellion as he seemed capable of, and Spurling never quite accounts for Matisse's transformation from a Beaux-Arts wannabe into a reluctant leader of the avant-garde. Her discovery that the "Humbert Affair" of 1902, a financial and political scandal of massive proportions, directly implicated Matisse's in-laws and, by extension, Matisse himself, makes for a gripping read and reveals much about the artist's early development. Six years later, when Harmony in Red emerges out of the artist's intense struggles with the art establishment and with his own radical impulses, the reader is as exhilarated as his biographer could possibly desire. 150 b&w photos; 24-page color insert not seen by PW.
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