Matisse the Master by Hilary Spurling
In this second volume of her biography of arguably the greatest of 20th-century painters, Hilary Spurling recounts the life of Henri Matisse from 1909, when he was in the midst of consolidating the gains of his breakthrough Fauve period, through the two world wars, to his death in his studio at Cimiez in 1954. As with her earlier volume, The Unknown Matisse,* this new book gives us a down-to-earth portrait of the artist and his family while faithfully rendering a bygone era in which both art and those who made it, theorized about it, and bought it were taken seriously. In Matisse’s case, most of those who took him seriously were foreigners; French critics and art lovers tended to be dismissive, if not downright hostile. One of the striking aspects of Spurling’s story is the recurring role of foreign supporters, and of foreign influences, in the painter’s career and artistic development. Among his key American collectors, for example, were Albert Barnes, who commissioned a huge mural—Dance (1933)—for his foundation outside Philadelphia, and the Cone sisters, Eta and Claribel, whose collection of Matisses is now in the Baltimore Museum of Art. Another American supporter was the painter and critic Walter Pach, who helped organize the sensational Armory Show in New York City in 1912 that introduced modern art to the American public. Then there was Matthew Prichard, an English philosopher and academic outsider who, mystified at first by Matisse’s revolutionary paintings, not long afterward became one of his most ardent champions. It was Prichard who took Matisse to an exhibition of Islamic art in Munich, a show that led the painter to spend time in southern Spain studying Islamic architecture and the patterned designs that would so profoundly influence his work. He would be introduced to still another influence—that of Russian religious icons—by the collector Sergei Shchukin, who organized a visit to Moscow that elevated Matisse to the unaccustomed status of cultural celebrity.
About the Author
Steven C. Munson’s contributions to COMMENTARY include “David Smith’s Vision” (May 2006) and “Inside the New MOMA” (February 2005).