Matisse the Master

‘If my story were ever to be written down truthfully from start to finish, it would amaze everyone’, wrote Henri Matisse.Ā  It is hard to believe today that Matisse (Ā and, whose exhibitions draw huge crowds worldwide, was once almost universally reviled and ridiculed. His response was neither to protest nor to retreat; he simply pushed on from one innovation to the next, and left the world to draw its own conclusions.Ā  Unfortunately, these were generally false and often damaging. Throughout his life and afterward people fantasized about his models and circulated baseless fabrications about his private life.

Fifty years after his death, Matisse the Master (2005) (the second half of the biography that began with the acclaimed The Unknown Matisse, 1998) shows us the painter as he saw himself. With unprecedented and unrestricted access to his voluminous family correspondence, and other new material in private archives, Hilary Spurling documents a lifetime of desperation and self-doubt exacerbated by Matisseā€™s attempts to counteract the violence and disruption of the twentieth century in paintings that now seem effortlessly serene, radiant, and stable.

The volume covers the years 1909 to 1954, a period which covers two world wars and the latter half of the artistā€™s life. Though relatively well-known at the beginning of the book, Matisse still struggles with critical ridicule and periodic bouts of depression.
Spurlingā€™s treatment of the tensions in his life and his marriage to AmĆ©lie is subtle and meticulous, as are her descriptions of the development of his work and its position in relation to the work of his contemporaries. In her preface, she states her intention to disprove two standard assumptions about Matisse: the belief that he was an exploitative womanizer who routinely slept with his
models, and the suspicion that he in some way collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. On the whole, she succeedsā€”the latter charge seems ridiculous anyway, given that the artist was elderly and unwell during the Vichy regime, and that his wife and daughter were both arrested by the Nazis. Spurlingā€™s portrayal of Matisseā€™s relationship with his daughter Marguerite, who was
tortured by the Gestapo and narrowly escaped being sent to a concentration camp, is particularly sensitive. An intelligent, well-written and impressively researched biography.

Here for the first time is the truth about Matisseā€™s models, especially two Russians: his pupil Olga Meerson and the extraordinary Lydia Delectorskaya, who became his studio manager, secretary, and companion in the last two decades of his life. But every woman who played an important part in Matisseā€™s life was remarkable in her own right, not least his beloved daughter Marguerite, whose honesty and courage surmounted all ordeals, including interrogation and torture by the Gestapo in the Second World War.

If you have ever wondered how anyone with such a tame public image as Matisse could have painted such rich, powerful, mysteriously moving pictures, let alone produced the radical cut-paper and stained-glass inventions of his last years, here is the answer.Ā  They were made by the real Matisse, whose true story has been written down at last from start to finish by this superb biographer, Hilary Spurling (

544 pagesĀ in Penguin paperback edition

ISBN 978-0140176056

Henri Matisse

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