The notion of a “second life.” It’s the subject of Jeanette Winter’s latest picture book, and it’s a tantalizing idea. Many of us, that is, at older ages, can stumble upon a heretofore undiscovered calling or discover a new passion—and set out on all-new paths, career or otherwise. It’s precisely what painter Henri Matisse did, and Winter beautifully conveys his story here.
In Henri’s Scissors, readers meet Matisse as a young boy, but we don’t linger in his childhood very long at all, since it is upon that second life that Winter is focused in this unusual biography. Nevertheless, we see that he was a child whose mother inspired him to paint: He painted images in the sand with a stick, he drew pictures in his books at school, and as a young man, he drew in “his law books and on contracts, deeds, and wills.” In three short sentences and with merely three illustrations, Winter summarizes his success as a painter in Paris, after he left law to follow his passion. “He was happy, and his paintings made people happy,” Winter writes. It is with economy and reverence that she lays out his career as a painter.
However, as an old man, his paintings merely “floated by in his dreams,” for he fell ill and could only lie in bed and sleep, while wondering if he’d ever have the energy and will to paint again. After visiting a seaside town, once strong enough to travel, he discovered “drawing with scissors,” or cutting out shapes from painted paper. With assistants painting papers for him, he cut all day long, creating art. “Why didn’t I think of it earlier?” he is quoted as saying. “It seems to me that I am in a second life.” He even took to drawing pictures of his grandchildren on the ceiling of his bedroom with a chalk attached to a long pole.
Soon, his walls are filled with colorful shapes, what he once referred to as “a little garden all around me where I walk. . . . There are leaves, fruits, a bird. I am deeply contented, happy.” Here, Winter has painted Matisse in his wheelchair, staring directly at the reader, with bright shapes all around. It’s a striking spread.
In a book with a small trim size and lively, yet comforting, multi-colored fonts, Winter has captured a big story and a compelling idea—that it’s never too late to learn, to change and grow. She moves from bright spreads in his early life to darker, more subdued ones during his illness. In the final spreads, the very space seems to open up for displays of his art, and she closes the story with his death in two eloquent and touching final spreads. Her Author’s Note doesn’t provide much more detail about his life, but it need not do so. Instead, she briefly discusses first seeing his large cut-outs at the National Gallery in Washington and feeling like she was “inside [his] garden.”
Throughout the book, she incorporates quotes from letters Matisse had written during his lifetime to his friend, writer André Rouveyre, and she notes the source for those letters for those interested in further reading. The book’s endpages include quotes from others about Matisse’s work, including the opening quote from painter Romare Bearden: “Matisse got as close as one can get to heaven with a pair of scissors.”
Second lives. Second chances. A story of the ability of art to heal. This one’s a keeper.
HENRI'S SCISSORS. Copyright © 2013 by Jeanette Winter. Illustration used with permission of Beach Lane Books, New York.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.