We tend to think of Henri Matisse as the grand bourgeois of twentieth-century art. In the famous series of photographs showing him in old age surrounded by the paper cutouts with which he was then illustrating The Thousand and One Nights, he is the embodiment of material comfort and of serene self-composure. Picasso, austere painter of the darkest forces in human nature, once said that art comes “from Sadness and Pain.” Matisse is remembered for comparing art to “a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”
This received image of Matisse bears little relation to the bumbling young man who is the subject of the first volume of Hilary Spurling’s new biography. She is writing about a small town’s laughingstock, a gribouilleur or doodler who defied his father to study art in Paris, and once there was almost crushed by poverty and persistent failure. By the time of his success at the Salon d’Automne in 1906, he was thirty-seven. For fifteen years he had been living on the brink of destitution, attempting to support his wife and children by the occasional sale of pictures nobody seemed to want. A friend, coming upon Matisse after one of these rare sales, found him in possession of 400 francs. Touching the bills uneasily, he asked, “Have you killed someone?”
Any number of artist’s biographies follow a familiar trajectory from failure to triumph. What makes Spurling’s life unusual is that she has uncovered a secret family history which goes a long way toward explaining the enigma of Matisse. Why did the artist who saturated his paintings in sensuous color, who painted Mediterranean sunlight pouring through open windows, and who loved the patterns of Moroccan carpets and French silks appear to have been such a cold fish? Why is the impression so widespread that Matisse was detached and self-satisfied? Why was he so fanatically protective of his private life? Spurling brushes aside all our preconceptions about the painter to reveal a personality—and a personal history—none of us had guessed at.
Born in 1869, Matisse grew up in Bohain-en-Vermandois, a bleak industrial town on the flatlands of northeastern France, about halfway by train between Brussels and Paris. He was of Flemish descent (the name was sometimes spelled Mathis or Mathisse), the elder son of hard-working owners of a seed and hardware store who possessed the middle-class virtues of practicality and thrift, along with the failings of provincialism and intolerance. Obedient, passive, and—to judge by the apathy and chronic invalidism Spurling describes here—deeply depressed, Henri only realized at the age of twenty that his vocation was to become an artist. Before his mother presented him with his first box of paint, he said, “I had no interest in anything. I felt a great indifference to everything they tried to make me do. From the moment I held the box of colours in my hand, Iknew this was my life.”
He began by consulting a “how to paint …