Even those of us who have loved Matisse’s work since we began to look at paintings as a serious interest could not have suspected what it had cost this great artist to persevere in his vocation. Pleasure had so often been invoked as the key to an understanding of his achievement—“Un nom qui rime avec Nice . . . peintre du plaisir, sultan de Riviera, hédoniste raffiné,” as Pierre Schneider sardonically described this mistaken characterization of Matisse—that it has come as a shock to discover the sheer scale of adversity that had to be endured at almost every stage of his life and work.

It was not only that his paintings were initially denounced as the work of a madman.

It was not only that his paintings were initially denounced as the work of a madman. That was the common fate of a great many modernists, even in the heydey of the School of Paris. Matisse’s personal circumstances were also plagued by failing health, failing confidence, and a lack of command in the academic conventions of his medium. (He had never been a good student, and his training was meager.) Even worse, there was his wife’s family’s financial scandal, which, though neither Matisse nor his wife were at fault, nonetheless cast a pall over the family’s name and position.

The bad news comes early in the opening chapter of The Unknown Matisse, the first volume of Hilary Spurling’s brilliant biography of the artist, released in 1998, with its stark account of the world into which the artist was born in 1869:

Matisse was born just as the accelerating juggernaut of industrialisation and deforestation reached top speed in his native region. When his family settled on the rue du Chateau, Bohain was already halfway through its transformation from a sleepy weavers’ village deep in the ancient forest of the Arrouaise to a modern manufacturing centre with ten thousand clanking looms installed in the town itself and the villages round about. The population, which had taken forty years to grow from two to four thousand before the large-scale installation of steam machinery in the 1860s, would very nearly double again in the twenty years before Matisse finally left home for Paris.

The town’s principal product was textiles, but sugar-beet output also doubled in the first ten years of his life. Energetic clearance meant that the last pockets of surrounding woodland were cut down to make way for beet plants in 1869, the year of Matisse’s birth. The windmills and belfries that traditionally dotted the rolling flatlands of the Vermandois were far outnumbered in his childhood by the smoking chimneys of sugar refineries and textile mills. The streams on these chalky downs—Bohain stood high in the centre of a triangle marking the sources of the Somme, the Selle and the Escaut—ran with dye and chemical refuse on leaving the towns. The streets of Bohain were slippery with beet pulp in autumn, and the air was rank all winter with the stench of rotting and fermenting beets. Visitors from the outside world in the 1870s and 1880s were shocked by the drabness of the town itself, and by the stark, treeless outlines of the newly denuded land round about. “Where I come from, if there is a tree in the way, they root it out because it puts four beets in the shade,” Matisse said sombrely.

Yet, such are the unforeseeable consequences of sensibility and a creative imagination that it was also owing to Matisse’s early encounter with textiles in that grim setting that he developed a keen understanding of color and its emotive properties. This is the subject that was the focus of the exhibition, “Matisse, His Art & His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams,” on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from June 23 through September 25, 2005, which significantly expanded our comprehension of Matisse’s accomplishment. In her essay for the catalogue of the Met show, Ms. Spurling writes:

Textiles were in his blood. He could not live without them. He collected them from his beginnings as a poor art student, spending tiny sums he could not afford on frayed scraps of tapestry from Parisian junk stalls, to the last years of his life when his studio in the South became a treasure-house stocked with Persian carpets, Arab embroideries, African wall-hangings, cushions, curtains, costumes, patterned screens and backcloths. Visitors came away dazed and disbelieving, quite often disapproving, from a workshop that looked more like something from a fairytale—oriental harem, magician’s lair, enchanter’s palace—that the setting for any serious productive effort.

What those visitors didn’t understand was that, as Ms. Spurling writes,

Matisse’s fabric collection served him as a combined archive and tool-store all his life. He called it “my working library,” taking sections of it with him whenever he switched studios between Nice and Paris, sending for others as and when he needed them, constantly replenishing the collection from oriental carpet shops and clothes stores, radically extending it at intervals in the bazaars, souks and market stalls of Algeria, Morocco and Tahiti, or at end-of-season sales of Parisian haute couture. He packed bits of folded stuff to accompany him on his travels, painting a length of French flower-patterned silk in his hotel room in Tangier before the First World War, pinning Tahitian barkcloth and Kuba fabrics from Congo to his wall so that he could continue working from them in the years when he lay bedridden in a rented villa in the South of France during the Second World War.

In the closing pages of Matisse the Master, the second volume of this magisterial biography, it is the courage of the aged and ailing man himself that is described with Ms. Spurling’s characteristic delicacy and respect:

“I am beginning to take Renoir’s place on the Côte d’Azur,” Matisse had written after his operation, knowing that his only prospect of survival was to accept the half-life of a permanent invalid. He had drawn courage from Renoir in his first years in Nice, and now he followed the example of their last meetings at Cagnes, when he watched life and energy flow back into the dying painter through the brush strapped to his bandaged hands. “I have never seen a man so happy,” said Matisse. “And I promised myself then, that when my time came, I would not be a coward either.”

In her preface to The Unknown Matisse, Ms. Spurling wrote that “This book is a biography, not a work of art history,” yet in these two volumes on Matisse she has given us the best account of Matisse’s achievement that we have—the account that no art historian has come close to matching.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 2, on page 69
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