The Matisse we never knew

Peter Schjeldahl reviews A Life of Henry Matisse by Hilary Spurling, in The New Yorker:

Images20matisse20womangifHenri Matisse, unlike the other greatest modern painter, Pablo Picasso, with whom he sits on a seesaw of esteem, hardly exists as a person in most people’s minds. One pictures a wary, bearded gent, owlish in glasses—perhaps with a touch of the pasha about him, from images of his last years in Vence, near Nice, in a house full of sumptuous fabrics, plants, freely flying birds, and comely young models. Many know that Matisse had something to do with the invention of Fauvism, and that he once declared, weirdly, that art should be like a good armchair. A few recall that, in 1908, he inspired the coinage of the term “cubism,” in disparagement of a movement that would eclipse his leading influence on the Parisian avant-garde, and that he relaxed by playing the violin. Beyond such bits and pieces, there is the art, whose glory was maintained and renewed in many phases until the artist’s death, in 1954: preternatural color, yielding line, boldness and subtlety, incessant surprise. Anyone who doesn’t love it must have a low opinion of joy. The short answer to the question of Matisse’s stubborn obscurity as a man is that he put everything interesting about himself into his work. The long answer, which is richly instructive, while ending in the same place, is given in Hilary Spurling’s zestful two-volume biography, “A Life of Henri Matisse.”

More here.