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by N. F. Karlins
|Hilary Spurling, The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: the Early Years, 1868-1908, Knopf, 1998, 482 pp., $40.|
English biographer Hilary Spurling's The Unknown Matisse examines the inauspicious beginnings of the artist's career and his long, single-minded battle to cast off the traditions of the 19th-century. This biography is the first part of a projected two-volume project on the life of Henri Matisse.
Developed with the assistance of the Matisse family, the book offers fresh insights into Matisse's early struggles. Spurling details in particular the national financial scandal that ruined his wife's family, who had been a crucial source of support for the young artist.
Spurling also lets the reader feel how tenuous life was for any artist in late 19th-century France, especially ground-breakers like Matisse. Then as now, esthetic innovation often became wrapped up with larger political battles that could be exceptionally vicious.
Early on, Matisse found inspiration in the work of the Australian-born painter John Peter Russell. Russell's inheritance allowed him to work through the color of the Impressionists at his studio on Belle-Ile-en-Mer, off Brittany. When Matisse arrived in the mid-1890s, his drab palette of Flemish browns and greens was forced to confront brilliant color.
It was here that Matisse's struggle switched into high gear. "He dated the onset of the insomnia that plagued him for the next half century to this turning point on Belle-Ile, when he embarked on a course that spelt madness to his family and friends...." He was already 27 but had made little impact on the world.
Spurling allows us to see the young Matisse enraged by the vilification he suffered at the hands of his neighbors and the art world. He is not the patrician artist in glasses and frock coat, but a poorly-dressed, frugal painter, whose red hair could have been a symbol for the volcanic frustrations that he tried to control, often in vain.
Matisse was fortunate to observe Russell's and other older artists' stable marriages. They were happily anchored. His anchor would be Amèlie Parayre. Introduced to her at a wedding feast, he married her only three months later in January 1898. She and her family provided the emotional support that was crucial to him during his breakthrough years from 1898 to 1904, according to Spurling.
Matisse's "dark period" (1902-03) -- when he turned his back on his hard-won achievements and moved briefly to naturalism and a dark palette -- coincided with the downfall of the Humbert family, one of the first financial debacles of the century. Unfortunately, the Humbert family served as the employers, friends and confidants to the parents of Matisse's wife, the Parayres. The lure of the Humberts' supposed wealth ended up embarrassing not only the naïve Parayres, but also many of France's most distinguished ministers.
The Humberts fled, taking the pension funds of a bank run by the Parayre family, bankrupting many, including Matisse's in-laws. The Parayres were accused of abetting the Humberts. They lost their life savings, their home and their honor. They became destitute pariahs overnight. Matisse's father-in-law ended up in jail for several months before being released. Matisse's wife was forced to close her hat shop. The stress led to the collapse of both Madame Matisse and her sister, and even the painter, under a doctor's care, was forced to rest in the country for several weeks.
Desperate to raise money, Matisse tried to slap together anything that might sell. But he had gone too far to turn back and sold none of the works that he forced himself to paint during this time. They were a hodgepodge of the past and the unfledged future. It seems fair to question whether Matisse was overcome primarily by purely painterly concerns, but the devastation of the Humbert scandal does seem likely to have influenced his esthetic about-face.
Meanwhile, Matisse traded in his old painters' togs for a business suit in order to assist with the defense of his in-laws. By the time he began to be courted as an artist in early 1906, his finances still shaky but improving, Matisse was already 36 years old with a wife and three children. Younger artists would see him in a suit and think that he was an old fogey who never had to strive as they did. Although generous to other artists, Matisse gave up trying to explain his work and retreated within the safety of his bourgeois suit.
Matisse regained his momentum, as Hilary Spurling explains in this excellent book. It contains 35 color illustrations plus others in black-and-white. The Unknown Matisse illuminates an important and heretofore neglected period in Matisse's development. It also leaves you hungering for the next volume.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.
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