Book: The Unknown Matisse

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The Unknown Matisse

Series: Volume 1. The Early Years, 1869-1908
Author: Hilary Spurling
Publisher: University of California Press

Hilary Spurling presents a thorough and riveting account of Matisse's early life, from his beginnings as the son of shopkeepers in Flanders through his impoverished days as a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Tracing Matisse's life through his thirties, Spurling describes how the artist's stubborn northern temperament helped sustain him through many challenges, both artistic and financial, as he found his way as a painter.


“Matisse was born in 1869 in northern France and grew up in Bohain-en-Vermandois, near the Belgian border, on the drab, cold, wet beet fields of French Flanders. The same area, culturally and geographically speaking, had produced Vincent van Gogh sixteen years before.” Thus begins the first full biography of an artist who, more than any other, is associated with Mediterranean heat, brilliant color and light, and languid, luxurious interiors. As author Hilary Spurling points out, an open window is one of Matisse’s frequent motifs. Given the climate of his youth, that image speaks more of escape than of the sea air of the French Riviera.

If all biographers wrote with Spurling’s warmth, empathy, and intelligence, no one would likely want to read any other kind of book. The Unknown Matisse is thoroughly researched, with pages devoted to minutiae that Spurling imparts with wit and style, making every nuance of Matisse’s early development fascinating. She tells too the story of Matisse’s family life (Mme. Matisse risked her respectable reputation by adopting Henri’s first, illegitimate daughter), his brilliant ideas about art, and the years it took for his paintings to find their rightful audience. It was her intention finally to give as much weight to Matisse’s life as has been given to his work, but in the process of examining the man she sheds new light on the art as well. —Peggy Moorman

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