Ever since I finished writing a life of Henri Matisse,1 I have been haunted by an image from H.G. Wells’s novel The Invisible Man. The hero of that book invents a scientific process to make himself invisible with no means of reversing the effect so that he finds himself trapped, unable to establish his identity, or prevent the public from picturing him as an almost mythical fiend stalking the streets. He ends up on the run, hunted, cornered, and finally bludgeoned to death, at which point the horrified crowd watches the invisible monster created by panic and mass hysteria slowly take shape in the gutter in front of their eyes as, in reality, an emaciated, bruised, and battered naked body.
This image—of a defenseless human being hounded and brought down by ruthless pursuers—corresponds fairly closely to the French view of biography, a view forcibly expressed by Louis Aragon in his infuriating Matisse: A Novel. This is an elaborate firsthand account in two volumes, published seventeen years after its subject’s death in 1954, and described by its author as a work of imagination, “not mine but the painter’s.” Aragon saw it as the duty of people like himself, who knew Matisse, to conceal or destroy anything that might cast light on the painter’s private life. “We, the last of his contemporaries, we didn’t force him to rip off his shirt and bare his heart…,” Aragon explained, emphasizing in a postscript his invincible contempt for the role of biographer: “We didn’t challenge him to say the unsayable, we didn’t subject him to the sort of crude blackmail common to every sort of investigative inquiry today.”
In what the French call the Anglo-Saxon world, the great foundation stone on which all subsequent serious study has been built is Matisse: His Art and His Public, a uniquely rich and comprehensive survey of documentary evidence compiled for the Museum of Modern Art by Alfred Barr in 1951. Barr’s book (never, incidentally, translated into French) became my guide, mentor, and road map. But the general consensus, freely expressed by experts in public and private, saw Matisse as drab, tame, and stuffily conventional, with a shrewd grasp of business but little intellectual or emotional depth. There had never been a biography, I was told by a leading scholar, because—in case I wondered why—“Matisse’s life would be too dull to write about.”
Failing any more specific directions, I turned to Matisse himself. His instructions on how to produce a portrait—as applicable in literary as in pictorial terms—were lucid, pertinent, and precise. He insisted on meticulous accuracy while maintaining that close study of external detail can never supply more than the starting point for a portrait. Success or failure at a deeper level was a matter of contemplation, concentration, the force and quality of attention focused on any given subject. Subtlety of observation counted for more than anything else. Matisse said that nothing should be distorted or suppressed. Approximations did not interest him. Anyone setting out to…
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