Virtually all of Matisse’s important early patrons and collectors were foreigners: Americans, Russians, Scandinavians, Germans. It was not until 1922, when Matisse was in his fifties, that the French government purchased a work for the Musée du Luxembourg, choosing the somewhat conventional Odalisque with Red Trousers. But Matisse had still not had the critical attention he deserved. Apollinaire, who had done so much to keep Matisse’s name before the public in the years before 1914, was dead. Breton, who was about to succeed Apollinaire as the most effective artistic impresario in France, had as a youth admired Matisse’s work but was now coming to regard it with suspicion. Reviewing a Matisse exhibition in 1919 Cocteau spoke of “le fauve ensoleillé devenu un petit chat de Bonnard.”
Matisse’s popular reputation grew steadily throughout the 1920s, but Derain, his closest collaborator during the heroic years of Fauvism, and fourteen years his junior, was held in greater esteem by influential critics such as André Salmon and Roger Allard; the former saw Derain as the greatest French artist of his generation. In the early Thirties Ozenfant was writing of Matisse’s art as “a prolongation of the superficial painting of the Eighteenth Century.” Most of the best writing on Matisse—and for that matter on French nineteenth- and twentieth-century art in general—has been in English. Roger Fry’s short monograph of 1935 was the first attempt to demonstrate analytically why Matisse’s achievement as a painter was unique. And Matisse literature today is still dominated by Alfred Barr’s Matisse, His Art and His Public, first published in 1951, and in many respects still the most satisfactory monograph on any major twentieth-century artist.
It was only after the Liberation that the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris began systematically to build up its Matisse holdings, and these today rival those of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Barnes Foundation’s, or the large group of pre-1914 masterpieces currently shared between Moscow and Leningrad. Since World War II the US has continued to lead the field in promoting Matisse’s reputation, but in 1970 the Exposition du Centenaire brought together in the Grand Palais a large proportion of the greatest Matisses in France, America, and Russia to make the finest display of Matisse’s art to date in what the American critic Thomas B. Hess called “the most beautiful exhibition in the world.” The exhibition was organized by Pierre Schneider who has now produced the only book—if we leave aside Louis Aragon’s imposing but somewhat idiosyncratic two-volume collection of essays of 1971 entitled Henri Matisse, Roman—to rival Barr’s in importance. The two books complement each other well, for while Barr’s approach was detached and objective, Schneider has produced a work that is, in the best Baudelairean tradition, “partial, passionné, politique.” “My work consists of steeping myself in things. And afterwards, it all comes out,” Matisse said to Père Couturier in 1949, and this …