Henri and Pierre Matisse
Hilary Spurling: The Unkown Matisse.
John Russell: Matisse. Father & Son.
Article added in January 1999
Hilary Spurling: The Unknown Matisse
Hilary Spurling is no art historian, but a broadly acclaimed biographer (e.g.: Paul Scott). After eight years of research on the
she has published a brilliantly written book about the Henri Matisse (1869-1954).
She explores the life and work of young Matisse up to his recognition in
the years 1907-1908 (a second volume on the following years is still to
be published). Spurling successfully goes beyond the - sometimes false
- anecdotes that were known about Henri. With the help of Matisse' family, Spurling presents a lot of details about his childhood and in particular
about the national financial scandal that ruined his wife's family, who
had been a vital support for the artist.
Matisse was born in 1869 in the French part of Flanders, near the Belgian
border. According to Spurling, he was a typical child of the Picardie: brusque,
sober, unromantic, but full of energy and wit. In the drawing
lessons at school, he had to copy mecanically geometric objects. Deviation
from the established method or using colour was immediately punished. Matisse
rebelled against it and this might be the reason why he became a great colorist. Another inspiration for the color in his paintings were the weavers
of his hometown Bohain.
His father was a seed merchant and Henri was to have become a lawyer.
For this reason he went to Paris for a year, fullfilling the middle-class
aspirations of his family. Only at 20 did he discover his true calling
when he saw Léon Bouvier's painting "Swiss Chalet" (1890). He moved
again to Paris - but this time to study art. In order to get admitted to
the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he first had to study in one of the multiple
Paris art schools. He moved from William Bouguereau to Gabriel Ferrier
and then to Gustave Moreau, where he finally got recognition. Matisse was
influenced by the paintings of Chardin and Goya. His teacher Moreau was
a painter who despised the "art du salon", so Matisse remained in a certain
sense an "outcast" of the art world. He initially failed his drawing exam
for admission to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but persisted and was finally
In 1894, Matisse became the father of an illegitimate daughter, conceived
in his studio with the mistress of a friend. Matisse acknowledged the child,
but his friendship to the painter ended. His first success as an artist
came in 1896 when the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts
accepted to show five of his paintings. The state bought one of his works
and a critic wrote a positive review about his art. Spurling notes that
this was the first and almost only recognition Matisse got in his native
country during his lifetime. In the same year, Matisse advanced to the
status of favourite pupil of his teacher Moreau and the state bought another
painting. As his paintings were again refused by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts,
a frustrated Moreau advised him to go his own way outside the venerable
In the mid-1890s, Matisse found inspiration in the work and the artists'
colony of the Australian-born painter John Peter Russell whose inheritance
allowed him to be independent. His light and bright colors affected Matisse
strongly. Russell introduced him to impressionism. Matisse also observed
Russell's and other artists' stable marriages. This probably influenced
him to find in Amélie Parayre his anchor. He married her in January
1898, only three months after having been introduced to her. Her family
provided the support he needed.
After years in poverty, Matisse went through his "dark period" (1902-03),
moved briefly to naturalism, went back to a dark palette and told friends
in 1903 that he had lost all desire to paint and had almost decided to
give up. His crisis coincided with the downfall of the Humbert family,
one of the great financial scandals in France. Matisse' parents-in-law
were employed by the Humbert's and the naïve and innocent Parayres
paid the price for that. The Humberts fled, taking the pension funds of
a bank run by the Parayre family who lost their savings, home and honor.
Matisse's father-in-law ended up in jail for several months and his wife
was forced to close her hat shop.
Matisse assisted his wife's family in court and at the same time overcame
his artistic crisis. He stopped the search for "objectivity" in painting
and instead found his conscious subjectivity. He experimented with light
and color. His star started rising and, by early 1908, the Paris art world
was divided in supporters of Picasso and of .... Matisse. Let's hope volume
two of this well-written biography will soon be available.
John Russell: Matisse. Father & Son.
The former art critic of The Sunday Times (1949-74) and The
New York Times (1974-1990), John Russell, in his book Matisse. Father
& Son offers us an account of the treasures hidden in the archives
of Pierre Matisse (1900-89), art dealer and second son of painter Henri
Matisse and his wife Amélie Parayre. Russell himself knew Pierre
Matisse personally. In the art dealer's archives he found over 800 letters
exchanged between father and son - hence the title of his book. Some of
the letters are over 20 pages long. Russel has not written another biography
of Henri Matisse, but concentrates on his son. His study is not on the
same brilliantly written and well-researched level as Spurling's biography,
but he still has a lot to tell us. In the early 1920s, as Pierre still
aspired to become an artist, he informed his father in every detail about
all of his works in progress and even sent him sketches of them. In late
1924, the son went to New York City where he started working for an art dealer. He toured around Europe looking for saleable art for the
At the end of 1931, Pierre finally managed to establish his own gallery.
Among his clients were soon famous people like actor Edward G. Robinson
(1935), the king of the automobile industry Walter P. Chrysler (1935) as
well as Joseph Pulitzer jr. (1936).
Russell has not written a detailed chronological biography. Instead,
he included portraits of several giants of the 20th century art world
represented by Pierre Matisse and his gallery. Among them, Juan Miró
(1932), Alexander Calder (1934), Alberto Giacometti (1937), Balthus (1938)
or Dubuffet (1939). In Pierre's archives were not only family letters,
but, for instance, also over 300 exchanged with Miró and almost
200 from Alberto Giacometti. Since Pierre was their art dealer, their letters
are often about money. This may be disturbing and annoying for some purists,
but these letters document the everyday struggle and the less glamourous
side of the art world.
Miró for instance only asked for regularly-paid modest sums. In exchange, he
delivered a previously fixed quantity of paintings - always in time, as punctual
as a Swiss watch and like an assembly line worker. His nature was in sharp
contrast to the traditional romantic image of the artists as an unreliable
person. Miró was in no way a dandy. At the same time, he was able to create
works full of poetic charm. Russell's book could sometimes benefit from being
more analytical, but he still gives us some precious insights to the life of
Miró, Giacometti, Balthus and Dubuffet. All these artists finally became famous
and wealthy, as Pierre Matisse himself. He could enjoy the fruits of his success
up to his death in 1989.
Added on July 26, 2002:
Matisse Picasso. Book accompanying the exhibition organized by the Tate
Modern, London; Les Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; Museum of
Modern Art, New York. English catalogue Tate Gallery Publishing, 2002, 400 p.
Get it from Amazon.de,
Edition française, Réunion des Musées Nationaux/RMN: Amazon.fr.
Get the US edition, Distributed Art Publishers, from Amazon.com
Yve-Alain Bois: Matisse et Picasso. Flammarion, 1999, 271 p.; Get the
US edition, 2001, from Amazon.com.
John Russel: Matisse. Father & Son. New York, Harry N. Abrams,
1999, 415 S. Get it from Amazon.com
Hilary Spurling: The Unknown
Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: the
Early Years, 1868-1908, New York, Knopf, 1998, 482 p. Get it from Amazon.com.
Hilary Spurling: Der
Unbekannte Matisse. Köln, DuMont, 1999 (1998 London), 541 S. Bestellen