Matisse : The Life, Paperback Book
3 out of 5 (1 rating)


Henri Matisse was one of the most important and beloved artists of the twentieth century, rivalled only by his friend - and competitor - Pablo Picasso.

Hilary Spurling's The Unknown Matisse and Matisse the Master were together heralded as the definitive biography of the artist, and Matisse the Master went on to win the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2005.In this abridged, one-volume edition, Hilary Spurling reveals the origins of Matisse's astonishing talent, provides a unique insight into his life and work, and, by documenting the difficult path he took alone, clearly places him at the front rank of those who made art modern.


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Breathless. In <i>Matisse: The Life</i>, Hilary Spurling compresses her masterful two-volume biography into something more manageable for the general reader. I think she must have done it by simply removing all of the air and squeezing. Because the overwhelming feeling for the reader of <i>Matisse: The Life</i> is of a life – a very long life – lived at a fevered pitch. From his earliest days to his death eighty years later, Henri Matisse fought a battle with himself, his art, and his family. That Spurling is able to carry the reader along at breakneck pace across this landscape is testament to her ability as a biographer to present as much as possible for her reader and, otherwise, stay out of the way.Perhaps every life of a great artist is filled with struggle. Here, each crisis is presented as a life crisis, whether it be the decision to break away from the grey palette of his northern youth, or to spend his last resources on an inspiring mounted brilliant blue butterfly, or to favour colour over conflict. This is the romantic, heroic life of self-inflicted penury, striving against norms, seeking within for some vision, which may only be appreciated fifty years hence. At the same time, Matisse clearly has a counterbalancing conformism, an almost bourgeois approach to the art business and to family. Spurling does not judge, though she clearly is in sympathy with her subject.However interesting Matisse’s life might have been, what animates it for the reader is his art. Fortunately, Spurling is very good at describing works (the text includes a number of colour reproductions) and, most especially, at carrying the reader through the process of creation. Perhaps, like me, you will remain bemused by gestation periods of many years for certain paintings. But at least you will feel that there is probably something more there, just out of reach.A long life worth living is filled with love and Matisse’s is no exception. Despite an early break with his father, the bonds of family remain rock solid. His relationship with his wife, Amélie, is completely integrated into his artwork. His children and later grandchildren are vital. He is at times irascible, petulant, domineering, childish, devoted, sanguine: in short, a man. One of the most delightful episodes, which here is passed over quickly without comment, occurs when Matisse, who had been looking after his new daughter-in-law’s dog while she and his son were on their honeymoon, refuses to give it back when they return. He had grown so attached to it that he could not bear to part with it the rest of its life. You cannot help but smile.For readability, I might have preferred some spacing in this telling, a chapter here or there at a lesser pace in order to allow the reader to catch his or her breath. But perhaps that is asking too much. In any case, if you cannot spare the time for Spurling’s even longer two-volume work on Matisse, then I recommend you at least take up this compressed life. Just hold on to your hat.

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