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MATISSE THE MASTER by Hilary Spurling


A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954

by Hilary Spurling

Pub Date: Sept. 6th, 2005
ISBN: 0-679-43429-1
Publisher: Knopf

The concluding volume of the first biography of the groundbreaking artist Henri Matisse, offering compelling insight and tiresome domestic details.

This expansive, prodigiously researched book from Spurling (The Unknown Matisse, 1998) familiarizes us not only with Matisse’s revolutionary art but his relationships with family and friends, his various aches and pains and his travels. Spurling is at her best when illustrating just how radical Matisse was. Few of his contemporaries understood his paintings—memorable works including 1910’s Dance (II) and 1912’s Goldfish—or his taste in art (he favored African carvings). The artist’s own work inspired violent public criticism. Truth is, even his friends and admirers at times weren’t quite sure of what he was up to, though they did understand what critics eventually acknowledged: his use of color was revolutionary. The best chapters outline Matisse’s long career. Lesser sections rely too heavily on mundane descriptions of his everyday life: Matisse raising his children, Matisse fretting over where he should travel next to paint, Matisse generally embracing a bourgeois lifestyle that appeared completely different from that of his friend and contemporary Pablo Picasso. The artist’s own remark, “If my story were ever to be written down truthfully from start to finish…it would amaze everyone,” is only true to a point, as it is for any man. Still, 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. Even at the end of his life, as his health deteriorated, Matisse remained prolific. “As Matisse’s race with death accelerated, he feared each work might be his last,” the author writes. “His superabundant vitality” exhausted even his young assistants.

Rich and colorful, if somewhat bulky, tribute to a visionary. (24 pp of color illustrations, 159 B&W illustrations)