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The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908 Hardcover – October 27, 1998

11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews 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 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.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Series: Unknown Matisse
  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (October 27, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679434283
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679434283
  • Product Dimensions: 7.1 x 1.9 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #789,774 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 29 people found the following review helpful By on November 8, 1998
Format: Hardcover
When I first heard that Hilary Spurling was planning to write Henri Matisse's biography I wondered what a literary English biographer could possible tell me about my intensely French artistic grandfather. Four years later the answer turned out to be a great deal more than I ever imagined.
Previous Matisse biographies have been written by art historians, art critics, and art lovers; all have skimmed quickly over the few facts that were generally known about his life in order to focus as quickly as possible on various aspects of his art. Ms. Spurling, on the other hand, approached Matisse's life as a professional biographer, and spent a great deal of time on original research.
The results are absolutely astonishing. For any one interested in Matisse's work, this book will be a revelation. It is beautifully written, excrutiatingly accurate, intensely documented, and filled with surprising and important insights about his life and work. It gives us a real understanding of what it was like to be this particular painter at the turn of the century in France. The book is almost like a mystery story, packed with surprising developments and clearly drawn characters. It is also beautifully illustrated with many family photographs as well as numerous black and white and color reproductions of his paintings, sculptures, and drawings.
Once started, this is a very hard book to put down. I couldn't recommend it more highly.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 3, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This account of the life of Matisse up until the age of 40 is a revelation. His early years in the dour industrial flatlands of northern France, the intensity of his struggle to find his own true artistic vision, the long years of poverty amd of sometimes crippling insecurity - all are described with sensitivity and narrative drive. Spurling's account of how the Humbert affair nearly destroyed Matisse is a triumph of historical detective work. And, set against all his trials, she movingly depicts the love and strength he derived from his marriage to Amelie. Finally, right at the end, we are in Paris in the first decade of the 20th century, when Matisse and Picasso between them revolutionized western art. It doesn't get any better than this.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Tyler Green on December 23, 1999
Format: Hardcover
What a book. Spurling writes a complete biography of Matisse, looking not just at his art and artisitc influences but at his entire life. Unlike Richardson in his biographies of Picasso, Spurling never stoops to cheerleading or excuse-making. (However, seeing as Spurling's book was written years after Richardson's first two Picasso volumes, I can't help but wonder how the two writers portray the Steins so differently. I wish Spurling had been willing to take on Richardson a bit more directly.) Instead she explains and enlightens. The pace of the text is perfect. Of particular fascination is Spurling's accounts of Matisse's artistic breakthrough, starting in the Fauve summer in 1905. This book is exciting, breath-taking, insightful and I can't wait for volume two. Quite possibly the best book I read in 1999.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 18, 1999
Format: Hardcover
THE UNKNOWN MATISSE is an exceptional biography. Moving beyond historical fact, Spurling sensitively imagines the human dimension of Matisse's life. She weaves historical detail, Matisse's writings and the writings of other artists, critics, conversations, all kinds of information into a seamless whole, ultimately bringing insight and understanding to his life's work. It's one of the rare biographies where the reader can feel "inside" along with the subject. I loved it. It's a wonderful book..
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 26, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Matisse has always suffered from bad press. In his home town he was known as a triple failure: He couldn't take over the family seed store, he didn't make a career in law work and he threw away a chance to be a popular Salon artist. When people saw his latest paintings, they were often overwhelmed and unprepared for what they saw. Only a few visionary collectors and fellow artists understood his ground-breaking efforts. Picasso and those who supported Picasso felt that they had to run down Matisse to help their own cause . . . despite having "borrowed" heavily from Matisse. Later, most of Matisse's early masterpieces were hidden away in foreign, private collections while crowds jeered at his latest work.

The pain of all this was immense for Matisse. But his private sorrows were made even greater by the difficulties he had in developing his style, the birth of an illegitimate child whom he acknowledged who suffered from serious health problems, and the poverty that dogged him until he was around 40. What is less well known is that his in-laws became embroiled in one of the most celebrated scandals of all time in France, and Matisse found himself drawn into saving them.

Ms. Spurling does well in capturing the agony of being Matisse.

Her style though leaves something to be desired. Much of the information is superficial rather than revealing. In many cases, I felt like I was reading someone's unreflective daily diary. An exception was the material on the Humbert Scandal which Ms. Spurling has also written about quite well in La Grande Therese.

Ms. Spurling also could have included more about Matisse's art in this book.

But you will learn a lot about Matisse from this book that you won't find in most other sources.
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