Georges Braque: A Life
by Alex Danchev
Arcade, 440 pp., $40.00
After Henri Matisse’s death in 1954, Georges Braque came to be recognized generally as the greatest living French painter. Picasso as a Spaniard was hors concours; and indeed in a very real way this is what he had been since he had ridden so quickly to fame in the first decade of the century. But already, before this, in the minds of some Braque was considered an artist superior to either Picasso or Matisse. In 1945 Jean Paulhan, editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française and a minor collector, published an important book entitled Braque le Patron in which he stated, “Braque is the artist, without hesitation, whom I take as a Master.” Earlier, in 1932, he wrote to a friend, “Picasso makes so much noise that one loves Braque…for his silence, and finally because one imagines he knows so much more than the other.” Braque had long since been recognized internationally as a major artist, but his position in France was probably reinforced by the fact that when Matisse’s glorious late papiers découpés were shown at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1949, they were coolly viewed and were felt by many to show him falling off in old age. Although Picasso’s years with Françoise Gilot (1943–1953) saw his greatest activity in the fields of pottery and book illustration, his canvases of the time, with a few exceptions, did not rival in intensity those of preceding periods or of others that were to follow.
Ironically, Braque was awarded a state funeral in 1963—ironically because despite his elevated status he had become increasingly withdrawn in his later years and disliked and shunned public occasions. His catafalque was placed in the Cour Carrée of the Louvre; as Alex Danchev points out, this was appropriate in that it was oriented toward the church of Saint-Germaine-l’Auxerrois where Chardin, perhaps Braque’s favorite artist among his French predecessors, lies buried. The ceremony was conducted by torchlight, and although it was raining hard it attracted a crowd of several thousand. There were newsreel cameras present. Braque would have hated it all. A brass band played Beethoven’s Funeral March for the Death of a Hero. Braque loved music, both classical and popular, and he admired Beethoven; but the composer whom he had come to most revere in old age was Bach. As minister of cultural affairs André Malraux delivered a short oration which bore all the marks of being hastily scripted, possibly over a somewhat bibulous lunch. The following day Braque’s body was conveyed to Varengeville, in his native Normandy, and buried in its small country church, adjacent to what had long since been Braque’s second home; in 1954 he had designed the stained-glass windows which we see there today.
No writer on Braque can afford to ignore his family background, and Alex Danchev, in his new biography, has much to say about it. Braque was born in 1882 in Argenteuil, a small town …