MATISSE THE MASTER
A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954
By Hilary Spurling
Knopf. 512 pp. $40
Although a sublime colorist and draftsman extraordinaire, Henri Matisse was wracked by doubts and infirmities throughout his long and brilliant career. In this riveting biography -- you can enjoy volume 2 without reading its predecessor, which covered the years 1869-1908 -- Hilary Spurling authoritatively recounts how the French artist persevered despite prolonged insomnia and frequent, sometimes life-threatening illnesses. Among the most painful of his afflictions may have been his fear that his reputation would not last. In 1935, he told his daughter, Marguerite, "The worry that haunts me is that I'll end up being forgotten." The large crowds who recently viewed "Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams" at London's Royal Academy and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art prove that he needn't have worried. Long after his death in 1954 at the age of 84, Matisse's popularity endures.
Just as Matisse transformed lithe models, narrow hotel rooms, swarming plants and flowers, and hand-colored papers into beguiling works of art, Spurling breathes life into what many had assumed was a humdrum story. The father of three children -- Marguerite and two sons -- Matisse along with his wife, Amelie, appeared to be a picture of conventionality. In 1913, a magazine reported, "the real Matisse . . . hurries to open the door in his gardening clothes when you ring the bell." He went to bed early, kept to a rigorous routine, made sure his son Pierre practiced the piano diligently. Of his visits to cafes in Tangier with a friend, the artist said, "I drank as many glasses of mineral water as he took of spirits." During various periods, Matisse swam laps, rode horses, took foxtrot lessons, rowed boats, went on diets and played the violin to relax. While he was painting "Dance," a masterpiece that now hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, he hummed dance-hall tunes. He owned a home with a telephone, bathroom and central heating when his fellow Fauves -- the phrase "wild beasts" was used to describe their expressive use of color -- were just getting by. He bought an automobile when they were a rare commodity.
His father, with whom he had a difficult relationship, wasn't impressed. After touring the beautifully appointed house and grounds in Issy, near Paris, Henri Matisse Sr. looked at the well-kept flowerbeds and said, "Why not grow something useful, like potatoes?"
Though he loved his home and family, Matisse had a penchant for traveling. He took trips to exotic locales -- Tahiti, Tangier, the Alhambra -- the way Pablo Picasso changed mistresses. He went abroad to experience different light effects and native colors. In North Africa, the artist studied motifs that had intrigued the incomparable French 19th-century Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix; in Tahiti, he found Paul Gauguin's unmarked grave and looked up Emile, Gauguin's son. In 1919, the year Auguste Renoir died, Matisse, 39 at the time, regularly visited the aged Impressionist.
As an artist, Matisse was single-minded, driven, desperate. It often took him years to complete individual paintings and sculptures. He frequently explained to Marguerite, Spurling writes, that "it was better to ruin a painting than to be satisfied with quick results." Matisse worked on "Bathers by a River," which he considered one of his five "pivotal" canvases, for seven years, and on "The Conversation" for at least four. It took him seven years to sculpt "Large Seated Nude." Today, like most of his work, they look, as if they had been effortless to create. It's unsettling, then, to learn that this 20th-century titan once commented, as if referring to himself, "A man who makes pictures like the one we were looking at is an unhappy creature, tormented day and night. He relieves himself of his passion in his pictures, but also in spite of himself on the people round him. That is what normal people never understand." Spurling details how, when Matisse was painting (which was a great deal of the time), he abandoned his family for months on end. Amelie Matisse had been forewarned. Soon after they met, her future husband told her, "I love you dearly, mademoiselle, but I shall always love painting more." This turned out to be true.
Nevertheless, when in Nice or traveling abroad, Matisse, wrote long letters to Amelie, Marguerite, Pierre and friends such as the painters Pierre Bonnard and Simon Bussy. It's Spurling's treatment of this correspondence, which she suggests combines "a diary's scope and freedom with the frankness of the confessional," that makes this biography so illuminating. Putting aside up to an hour or more in the evening, the artist described in great detail what he saw or did or hoped to achieve. The self-proclaimed "hermit of the Promenade des Anglais" in Nice was in constant contact with his wife and children. At first, his family didn't mind the sacrifices they were asked to make. Whenever Matisse sent new pictures to his house, it was Christmas in July. As his severest critics unwrapped them, they mostly oohed and aahed. But at a certain point, the situation soured. After running studio and business affairs for years, Amelie Matisse withdrew her services not long after being distressed by a portrait for which she sat twice a day for three months. To no avail, the painter described the canvas as "the one that made you cry, but in which you look so pretty."
Marguerite then took over until she married. After that, things got dicey. Lydia Delectorskaya, a 22-year-old Russian emigre hired as a studio assistant while Matisse, then in his sixties, was painting the mural "Dance," became the ailing Amelie's companion; and then left that position to oversee Matisse's studio and life. The wife demanded that the golden-haired, blue-eyed manager be fired, insisting, "It's me or her." "I was sacked," Delectorskaya told Spurling years later. "Madame wanted me to leave, not from female jealousy -- there was no question of adultery -- but because I was running the whole house." When Madame Matisse demanded a divorce anyway, the painter rehired Delectorskaya. Amelie Parayre walked out on Matisse after 31 years of marriage. Delectorskaya stayed at her employer's side for two decades.
"Matisse felt his family no longer had faith in him, or in his latest painting," Spurling writes, "which came to the same thing." As his factotum, Delectorskaya tirelessly supported all his efforts. During the spring of 1941, the 71-year-old painter seemed to be living on borrowed time. Suffering from fever, dizziness and palpitations, he could not even hold a pencil (previously, during years when he was too weak to paint, he drew copiously). At the height of World War II, his Russian aide kept the studio running, which was tantamount to keeping the artist alive.
Early in 1945, Matisse "told his daughter he had gone as far as he could with oil painting." And so he had. In the remaining years of his life, though bedridden, he spent four years designing the glorious Chapel of the Rosary at Vence and ended his career with a flourish by fashioning seductive, wall-sized cut-outs with a pair of scissors, lots of straight pins, paste and hand-painted sheets of color. Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the Salon de Automne exhibition, where paintings now accepted as masterpieces once unsettled the critics and public. It is now seen as the moment when the Fauve master entered the history of art with his daring, unorthodox use of color. Spurling's absorbing biography celebrates a chronic insomniac who shocked the art world at the beginning of his career and then, as death approached, continued to create transcendent, life-affirming work. *
Phyllis Tuchman, a Picasso scholar, frequently contributes to Town & Country, Art in America and artnet.com.