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”manual, and was soon attending provincial art schools in the time he could snatch from his work as a lawyer’s clerk. In the eyes of the elder Matisse, who intended him for the law, his son’s artistic aspirations were somehow shameful, a whim which would bring nothing but contempt upon the family name. But the young man held his ground. Although his father is said to have shaken his fist at the train departing for Paris in the autumn of 1891, the twenty-two-year-old Henri was on it.

Spurling’s detailed research sets the record straight about when, where, and with whom Matisse lived and worked during his years as an art student in Paris. Initially, his ambitions were as conventional as his upbringing. He simply wished to pass the entrance exams for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (where William Bouguereau still reigned supreme), and in time to win the prestigious Prix de Rome.

At different times Matisse attended the Académie Julian and the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs, finally passing into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1895. But the significant fact about his art training is the six and a half years he spent in the atelier of the Symbolist Gustave Moreau. Though it isn’t immediately obvious when you compare Moreau’s paint-encrusted phantasms to Matisse’s color-drenched arcadias, the master’s influence on his student was vital for the formation of Matisse’s later style. This is because Moreau believed that art’s purpose was to touch the spirit through the imagination, not merely to imitate nature’s imperfections.

Moreau’s teaching methods therefore offered an alternative both to academic salon painting and to the still- controversial style of Impressionism. He discouraged his pupils from either drawing from nature or looking at modern art, sending them instead to the Louvre to work their way methodically through the history of art by copying old master paintings. “I studied the old masters just as in literature you study different authors before deciding on one or another,” wrote Matisse. And the artists he chose to copy are surprising—not Rubens and Delacroix but Poussin and Chardin, subtle colorists whose pigments look as though they are imbedded in the fabric of the canvas. When copying Chardin’s The Pipe, Spurling notes, Matisse was baffled by


an elusive blue on the padded lid of the box in the middle of the canvas: a blue that could look pink one day, green the next. Matisse tried everything he could think of to pin down the secret of this painting, using a magnifying glass, studying the texture, the grain of the canvas, the glazes, the objects themselves and the transitions from light to shade.

To our eyes, Matisse was extraordinarily slow to respond to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. At the age of twenty-five, he still did not know the paintings of Monet, and it was only after Moreau’s death in 1898 that he discovered Seurat, Gauguin, and Cézanne. He first confronted modern art not in Paris but in the artist’s colony run by the millionaire Australian artist and patron John Peter Russell on the island of Belle-Ile off the coast of Brittany. During the summers of 1895 and 1896 Russell introduced him to the paintings of Claude Monet, and shared with him his enthusiasm for those of Vincent van Gogh.

And so began Matisse’s Impressionist phase. Back in Paris, he became friendly with the aged Camille Pissarro, in whose company he explored the collection of Impressionist pictures bequeathed by Gustave Caillebotte to the Musée du Luxembourg. The most important canvas from this period, The Dinner Table of 1896-1897, was also the first to outrage the public when it was shown at the Salon de la Société Nationale. And yet, for all its pretensions to being modern, the picture has the slightly tired feel of second-generation Impressionism. In his search for an artistic identity, Matisse had yet to discover his own distinctive voice.

This he began to find in 1898, when the twenty-nine-year-old Matisse married Amélie Parayre, a raven-haired southerner who was to share with him his long sojourn in what the brothers Goncourt memorably described as “the bohemia that embitters.” His attraction to Amélie isn’t hard to understand. Matisse possessed an instinct for pursuing whatever path, predilection, or passion could be defined as being the precise opposite of what he had known in his childhood. Not only was Amélie born in Toulouse, but her parents were free-thinking liberals who worked as the personal assistants to one of the most influential political families in France. Unlike his own parents, Monsieur and Madame Parayre had no hesitation about giving their daughter’s hand to a penniless artist with virtually no immediate prospects for success.

After their marriage, his stalled career took off into a new, intense, and more personal direction. That Amélie’s sympathy encouraged him to explore a sensuality which had been lying dormant within him is shown by the pictures he painted on their extended honeymoon trip—first to London to see the Turners in the National Gallery, and then to Ajaccio in Corsica, where Matisse had his first stunned encounter with the light and heat of the south. Vibrating with broken touches of brilliant color, the vigorous Corsican landscapes he painted in the first half of 1898 were utterly different from the timid exercises in Impressionism he had been painting until then. As Spurling comments, “This is the work of a man emerging from a cellar, a man in the grip of the kind of urgent, instinctive, almost animal uprush of feeling Matisse described when he first held his mother’s paint-box in his hands. He painted light, warmth, colour itself.” Forty years later Matisse told the collector Pierre Lévy that Fauvism had come initially from Corsica.

The fierce colors and fragmented forms of the first Fauve paintings would not emerge until the summer of 1905. And yet, all the elements for the Fauve explosion were in place by the end of 1901. Why did they fail to detonate? In May 1902, his experiments in color and composition were cut short and not resumed until after August 1903. Alfred Barr has described this as Matisse’s “dark period,” and other scholars have seen in the low-toned flower pieces and toreadors he painted then a failure of nerve, a retreat from the brink of his momentous pictorial breakthrough. Until now, we have known little about this period in his life. The detailed chronology published in the catalog to the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of 1992- 1993, for example, blandly states: “With Mme. Matisse, again goes to Bohain….” In fact, what happened is that Matisse’s world fell to pieces.



At the time of Amélie Parayre’s marriage to Henri Matisse, her father Armand and mother Catherine were acting as private secretaries and general factotums to a couple called Frédéric and Thérèse Humbert. He was the son of Gustave Humbert, one of the most revered political figures in the Third Republic. Her origins were more mysterious, but one thing everyone knew: she was one of the richest women in France.

Twenty years earlier, a shadowy American named Robert Henry Crawford (rumored to have been her natural father) had bequeathed to Thérèse a lead coffer containing 100 million francs in bearer bonds. But before she could take possession of her inheritance, Crawford’s two nephews stepped forward to dispute his will. Of course Thérèse hired the best lawyers in France to defend her interests. So did the nephews. The ensuing court case dragged on for two decades and pitted some of the finest legal minds in the country against each other. With each new round in the proceedings accorded extensive press coverage, all France watched, enthralled.

The delay didn’t worry the Humberts since the value of the inheritance increased with every passing year. In the meantime Madame Humbert was forced to live on credit. Although the family-owned newspapers and banks, the sumptuous Paris townhouse, the country estates, art collections, yachts, and jewels offered visible proof of the Humberts’ vast wealth, want of ready cash forced Madame Humbert to use her position as the daughter-in-law of a former minister of justice to take bribes. At her table, those seeking places or favors from the government could meet the president of the republic or the prefect of the police.

At the center of this maelstrom of corruption stood Matisse’s parents-in-law, the naive and idealistic Armand and Catherine Parayre, whose original attraction to the Humbert family had been based on their shared republican and anticlerical ideals. The army of place seekers who besieged Madame Humbert had first to go through Madame Parayre, who sometimes allowed them to peek at the notorious strongbox upon which the whole precarious financial edifice had been built. When the Humberts traveled, Armand Parayre accompanied them, heavily armed, a briefcase assumed to contain the bonds ostentatiously handcuffed to his wrist.

The financial arrangements between the Parayres and their employers were based on trust. They lived in the Humbert mansion on the avenue de la Grande Armée in Paris, and received pin money for their daily needs. Otherwise, they worked without pay, secure in the knowledge that they would receive their reward when Madame Humbert came into her inheritance. WhenHenri Matisse married Amélie in the fashionable Parisian church of St.-Honoré-d’Eylau, she wore a gown by the great dressmaker Maison Worth, and was given jewels by Madame Humbert, both of which were acquired either on credit or by barter.

And then, in May 1902, the chest was opened…and found to be empty. The whole story had been cooked up by Madame Humbert, whose two brothers had played the part of the litigious nephews to perfection. The subsequent scandal shook the government of France. For in order for the scheme to work, it was imperative that no one in the Humbert entourage could have known the truth—not the lawyers who had spent decades arguing their cause, not the politicians who sat at their table, not those who offered them bribes, certainly not their creditors, and least of all the Parayres.

Though innocent, suspicion naturally fell on Armand Parayre, who was accused of acting as their willing accomplice. He even spent some months in jail before being completely exonerated and shown to be the dupe he was. The case brought humiliation upon a proud and honorable family. Only in August 1903 when the Humberts had been sentenced to five years’ solitary confinement with hard labor could the Parayre and Matisse families feel free from the imputation of connivance in their crimes.

But for month after month it was Henri Matisse who put on his best coat and top hat to deal calmly and patiently with press and police. While the fate of Armand Parayre was still undecided, Henri brought his family back to the neighborhood of Bohain, where he presented his parents with the spectacle not only of his personal failure, but of a wife who bore one of the most vilified names in France. He began to turn out small, drab, and inexpensive pictures, potboilers he hoped he could sell easily now that no one in the family was producing any income. For months on end he stopped painting altogether. Tormented by self-doubt, Matisse wrote to a friend, “Balzac says necessity is the midwife of genius; the trouble is I’m not a genius.”

Years later, the critic Marcel Sembat wrote that the public saw Matisse as “a sort of con man in a silly hat, half anarchist, half charlatan.” Though such jibes must have scalded Matisse, in a way this could be a definition of many avant-garde artists. Placing your faith in modern art and putting it in the contents of a strongbox are not all that dissimilar. In 1903, for example, the speculator André Level put together Peau de l’Ours, a syndicate of bankers and businessmen to buy the pictures of young artists, hold onto them for a decade while prices rose, and then sell the collection at auction. Matisse himself thought up a scheme (which came to nothing) to support himself by forming a syndicate of twelve subscribers, each paying 200 francs annually to purchase his work. Level’s speculation paid off handsomely, but in art you can’t be sure of winning. That is because the strongbox is only finally opened after the artist’s death, when it can be exposed as containing nothing (Bougereau) or less than was anticipated (Moreau) or riches the public didn’t imagine while the artist was alive (Cézanne). And just as Amélie Matisse blindly placed her trust in the value of Henri’s work without at first fully understanding it, winners in this game had to believe in the value of a work of art when no one else did. Only Matisse knew that his art grew out of hard work, painful searching, and persistent questioning. As he told his father when crowds at the Salon de la Société Nationale of 1897 were laughing at his painting The Dinner Table, “It’s me that’s right.”

The Humbert affair turned Matisse inward. He himself admitted that the iron discipline, neatness, and punctuality of his later years were deliberately imposed. His embourgeoisement, the need he felt to guard himself and his family from the prying eyes of the press and public, have created the impression that Matisse was pompous and mean-spirited. If, after his death, his family refused to cooperate with journalists, art historians, or biographers, it is because Madame Matisse and her husband had so nearly been destroyed by outsiders.


In the aftermath of the scandal, Matisse was drawn to Divisionism, the system of applying pure colors in dots and dabs practiced by his friend Paul Signac, with whom he spent the summer of 1904 in St.-Tropez. By comparison with what Matisse had been doing earlier, the particles of brilliant color that make up the vision of arcadian bliss in the most important of these paintings, Luxe, calme et volupté,look startlingly modern. Yet as with Matisse’s imitations of Impressionism, in some respects it is a deeply cautious work. For one thing, the composition and treatment of space are almost as conventional as those in a classical idyll by Puvis de Chavannes. Then too, Matisse was a methodical and meticulous young man who longed to be given rules to conform to. The pointillist technique offered him a way not of releasing what he himself was happy to have labeled “the wild beast” of strong color, but of controlling it. To make a comparison with his private life, he once said that the orderliness of his daily routine enabled him “to contain a nature of extreme and innate unruliness.” Divisionism’s rules performed much the same function in his art.

Matisse spent the summer of 1905 with André Derain in the little fishing village of Collioure in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. Emboldened by the presence of the much younger artist, Matisse felt secure enough to allow the beast out of its cage. In writing about Fauve pictures—such as his portraits of Derain and of his wife (The Green Line)—he was to speak of the joy of defiance, revolution, anarchism, and violence. “We were at that point like children before nature, and we let our temperaments speak…. I spoiled everything on principle, and worked as I felt, only by colour.” Even today when we describe Fauve paintings, we use words like slash, divide, and fragment. The unrestrained color and broken forms in such pictures frightened the public, who saw in Fauvism not radiant beauty, but a transgression of artistic laws as dangerous as the flouting of the laws of morality.

The Fauve salons of 1906 and 1907 brought Matisse notoriety, his first real sales, but not full maturity. That came in 1908 with the large-scale interior and figure subject Harmony in Red and also with Bathers with Turtle. In these works the wild and fragmented brushstrokes of the Fauve years are replaced by broad, flat areas of pigment. Instead of depth and volume, space is compressed and form is flattened. As the violence subsides, a new monumentality and grandeur emerges. Two trips—one to North Africa and one to Italy (where he made his crucial discovery of quattrocento fresco painting)—contributed to the formation of this new and secure artistic identity. But just as important, I think, by drawing on a memory linked to his childhood Matisse found the thread that led him to an art which by comparison with his earlier work feels true, coherent, and fully integrated with his personality.

The town in which he grew up, Bohain, was an important center for the textile industry. All around the young Matisse silk weavers created fabrics of every possible color, pattern, and texture, all the more fascinating to a little boy raised amid such drab surroundings. That Matisse had watched the weavers at work is suggested by his habit as a mature painter of imitating their practice of cutting out paper shapes and pinning them onto a half-finished canvas in order to try out new compositional ideas. Then too, weavers routinely printed fabrics in several different colorways, a practice Matisse would imitate, most famously in the two versions of the Dance of 1909, where the figures in one are a Dionysian red, those in the other a cool light pink.

The importance of textiles is nowhere more obvious than in Harmony in Red,bought from Matisse’s studio in 1908 by Sergei Shchukin. Whereas the nominal motif is a bourgeois dining room, the picture’s real subject could be said to be a toile de Jouey fabric from Matisse’s own collection on which he based the arabesque pattern of the tablecloth and wallpaper. This seems to flood over the frontal plane of the canvas, its tendrils appearing to climb the wall in a riot of pattern and color, flattening the space as though the painting were itself a bolt of fabric. The picture’s innovative modern quality could be said to lie in its artifice, its frank admission that what we are looking at is first and foremost a flat canvas covered with pigment.

Though Harmony in Red is essentially decorative in conception, it would be a mistake to overlook its strong emotional content. Blazing with heat and light, the crimson interior becomes for Matisse an artificial garden in a remembered paradise, a place of refuge, abundance, and delight which has no more substance in reality than a dreamscape by his master Moreau, who wrote:

Colour has to be thought, passed through the imagination. If you have no imagination, you will never produce beautiful colour…. The painting that will last is the one that has been…dreamed over, reflected on, produced from the mind, and not solely by the hand’s facility…[with] the brush.

Through color Matisse was able to paint the world not as it is but as he wanted it to be. According to Moreau, the fact that Matisse painted the picture first in blue, then completely repainted it in red, shows that he was now using color not to describe reality but to intensify and enhance emotion. Color had become for him a part of the faculty of the imagination.

After describing a childhood drained of color and warmth, Spurling construes Matisse’s subsequent life as a deliberate “flight from the dark, narrow and constricted world of his northern upbringing.” She sees the odalisques lolling amid oriental carpets, patterned fabrics, striped silks, and brilliant flowers as the aesthetic antidotes to the repression and squalor of Bohain. Similarly, his decorations in 1952 of the open-plan, light-filled chapel at Vence can be regarded not as an expression of faith but as an attempt to wipe out the dour Catholicism he had known in childhood. “I come from the North,”he said. “You can’t imagine how I hated those dark churches.”

Matisse would not be the artist he is had he been able to banish all trace of tension and psychological insight from his work. Both are implied, for example, in the shard of black shadow piercing the little boy’s face in the Piano Lessonof 1916. But in his portraits Matisse is different from Picasso:he had no wish to see into the minds of his sitters. For a biographer to identify those who posed for him is nowhere near as important for our understanding of his pictures as it is with Picasso.

Nevertheless, if we are to see Matisse clearly, we must become familiar with the world he moved in. In these pages we meet the painters who exhibited with Matisse at the Salon des Fauves, including Derain, Henri Manguin, Albert Marquet, and Maurice de Vlaminck. We encounter again the familiar group of patrons and dealers who turn up in all biographies like this one—the dysfunctional Stein family, obsessive Sergei Shchukin, sleepy Ambroise Vollard, and saintly Berthe Weill. Many of Matisse’s artist friends—John Russell, Henri Evenepoel, Simon Bussy, Henri Huklenbrok, Etienne Terrus, Jules Flandrin—have fallen into obscurity, but Spurling’s swift biographical sketches bring them to life, and she is careful to notice the contribution of women to the early history of modernism, never failing to give credit to artists and patrons like Jacqueline Marval and Sarah Stein.

Spurling makes us aware of the important part brave women like Marianna Russell and Clotilde Maillol had in their husbands’ careers. Matisse’s first mistress (and mother of his oldest child), Camille Joblaud, could not in the end bear the hardship of these early years, but he was wonderfully helped in his work by the remarkable Amélie Matisse, to whose memory Spurling dedicates this volume. This first volume of a full biography of Matisse is a triumph of research and writing, a work of literature worthy of its subject.

This Issue

January 14, 1999