The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908

Hilary Spurling, Author Knopf Publishing Group $50 (512p) ISBN 978-0-679-43428-3
Despite Matisse's prestige in the annals of 20th-century art, there has been no biography published for the general reader until this hefty first of two volumes. ""Unknown"" as much for that omission as for his family's ""invincible discretion,"" Matisse has been allowed to face posterity as a less interesting, less dynamic character than some of his contemporaries. It is no surprise, then, that the stock techniques of sympathetic biography seem a bit more defensive than usual here as Spurling (author of Ivy: The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett) tries to counter her subject's reputation as the prickliest, stodgiest hedonist ever to lift a paintbrush. Challenging conventional views of Matisse that acknowledge his greatness as an artist ""while simultaneously belittling him as a human being,"" Spurling offers anecdote after anecdote illustrating his quaint mischievousness and selfless encouragement of other artists. She does a remarkable job of evoking the northern textile town of Bohain-en-Vermandois, where Matisse first assimilated the stringent demands of survival and acquired a reciprocal appreciation of luxury and irreverence. Still, when he decided at age 20 to become a painter, it was as drastic a rebellion as he seemed capable of, and Spurling never quite accounts for Matisse's transformation from a Beaux-Arts wannabe into a reluctant leader of the avant-garde. Her discovery that the ""Humbert Affair"" of 1902, a financial and political scandal of massive proportions, directly implicated Matisse's in-laws and, by extension, Matisse himself, makes for a gripping read and reveals much about the artist's early development. Six years later, when Harmony in Red emerges out of the artist's intense struggles with the art establishment and with his own radical impulses, the reader is as exhilarated as his biographer could possibly desire. 150 b&w photos; 24-page color insert not seen by PW. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 10/26/1998
Release date: 10/01/1998
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