Matisse’s Pajamas

Hilary Spurling in the New York Review of Books:

MatissegreenstripeBy the start of the twentieth century Matisse was well on the way to inventing a new, disturbing, and at that stage virtually incomprehensible visual language. He was a familiar figure, loping about the streets of Montparnasse in a black sheepskin coat turned wrong side out—some said it looked more like a wolfskin—clutching a roll of crazy paintings no other artist could make head or tail of. But almost from one day to the next Matisse drew back from the brink of modernity and started turning out relatively conventional figure and flower pieces. This regression took place in 1902–1903, a phase often referred to by art historians following Barr as Matisse’s Dark Period. His behavior suggested on its face a character of bourgeois timidity: someone who, having stumbled on a potentially disruptive discovery, failed to follow it up because he lacked the courage of his convictions.

In fact, Matisse turned out to have been caught up without warning in a major political and financial fraud, the Humbert Affair, a scheme carried out by one of the Third Republic’s best-known power couples, Frédéric and Thérèse Humbert. The affair rocked France in 1902–1903, causing a trail of bankruptcies, suicides, and bank failures, even threatening at its height to bring down the government. By the time the scandal broke in May 1902, the villains had fled, leaving as scapegoats their housekeeper and her husband, an unsuspecting couple who had for years provided the Humberts with an innocent front. Their name was Parayre, and Matisse had married their daughter. Their public exposure, followed by the arrest and trial of his father-in-law, left Matisse as the sole breadwinner for an extended family of seven. This is why he switched to painting canvases that were at least potentially saleable.

More here.  [For Jack Barth.]