In The Unknown Matisse, the first volume of her excellent two-part biography, Hilary Spurling reminds us that this master of radiant hues and dazzling evocations of light spent the first twenty-one years of his life in gritty, industrial north-eastern France, near the Flemish border, a region he never returned to, apart from obligatory family visits, after he left it for Paris in 1891. Not only was the landscape dreary and the light flat and gray, but the places where Matisse was raised were devoid of significant architecture, museums, or galleries; virtually no public art was on view. What was there in the way of visual stimulation in these bleak towns? Textiles, for which the district had been celebrated since medieval times. Matisse’s own ancestors had been weavers for generations. His birthplace, Le Cateau-Cambrésis, was famous for its woollen mills, and St.-Quentin, where he attended the lycée, was known for its lace...


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