Books: Private life of a family man

Matisse: Father and Son by John Russell Abrams pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
One image of Pierre Matisse, the younger son of the painter Henri Matisse, is familiar to us all. He is the boy in Piano Lesson of 1916, a canvas that is now a treasure of MOMA in New York. At that time his father hoped that Pierre would become a musician. But he lacked the talent, and a combination of circumstances was to make him an American art dealer. For five decades his gallery was the most important outlet for new European art in the US. Naturally Pierre sold paintings by his father. He also specialised in the work of, among others, Miro, Giacometti, Balthus and Dubuffet, artists who were his trusted friends.

Pierre Matisse knew exactly what was in their studios, he understood the various phases of their careers and had a feeling for their ambitions. So American collectors benefited from his expertise, as did the new museums of his adopted country. Matisse: Father and Son is the record of such cultural entrepreneurship. John Russell gives us a fine account of the transatlantic experiences of the French avant garde, and he is particularly helpful when describing the fortunes of artists after the fall of France in 1940. But Russell has also written a more intimate family history. We learn about the intense, often troubled relations between the elder Matisse, his wife Amelie, Pierre and his elder brother Jean and their half-sister Marguerite.

Amelie, we gather, entered marriage with a clear understanding of her husband's priorities. "Mademoiselle," he had said, "I love you dearly but shall always love painting more." Matisse was not exactly selfish, or not in the sense that he kept things to himself that other people found desirable. Nor was he self-absorbed, for he thought a great deal about his family and the world in general. Yet he had a remote, impersonal personality, as though he were separated from human passions by the serenity of his art. Hence the combination of love and chilly aestheticism in his quite numerous paintings of family life.

These paintings (and the drawings, and the still undervalued sculpture) show that Matisse was most touched by his children when they were just adolescent: still of the family, not yet quite in the world. Piano Lesson is about a boy who is set to learn about a future of intangible art. It is both disciplined and dreamy. Perhaps it was as well that Matisse pere was cautious, thrifty, even narrow-minded in matters of money. This he had inherited from his own provincial background. A shrewdness about finance was passed on to the younger Matisse. Pierre could not have been such a good dealer without the eye and the hedonism of an instinctive connoisseur. But he also knew how to make wealth work, especially in the breezier and exaggerated circumstances of the New World.

Pierre Matisse was also one of nature's diplomats. He coped with his father, his distressed and apparently vindictive mother, his stable of volatile, demanding artists and his exasperating millionaire clients. The last of his acts of diplomacy was in the choice of biographer. John Russell, a valued friend, was given access to the Pierre Matisse archives, which contain all the letters between the gallery and its artists - a professional correspondence, but personal too - and the even more precious letters exchanged between Henri Matisse and his son between 1920 and the painter's death in 1954.

I fancy that Matisse wrote more revealingly to Pierre because his son lived in a distant, young, conceivably adolescent, country. Something is still missing. Matisse says what he feels but we do not feel his presence, nor the warmth of his je t'embrasse salutations. This accords with the nature of his art, as Pierre knew. Russell also grasps that the elevation of Matisse's mind could be maddening to those around him. Russell is in the position of a confidant of the Matisse family. He knows how much, or how little, he should say. Here, of course, is the leading characteristic of any family biographer.

Russell is reticent, for instance, about Pierre's own marital difficulties. Amelia Matisse remains mysterious, and it is hard to find any clue about the illnesses that assailed her and perhaps led her to abandon her husband. We wish to know more about Marguerite, who was a heroine of the Occupation and emerged from imprisonment with the grace and personal radiance of a modern saint. (It is good, incidentally, that this book will put an end to the ugly rumours that Henri Matisse was close to collaboration with the occupying Germans.) There are other gaps, but still we have a marvellous description of the milieu of a great artist.

Actually, more than one great artist. Obviously Pierre Matisse treated all his artists as though they were family, and stuck with them all for many years. His own background - in which idealism transcended quarrels and separations - was the model for his sensitive approach to such painters as Balthus and Dubuffet, who cannot have been easy people to work with. Of the many artists who appear in this book, Joan Miro is perhaps the most attractive. His totally unorthodox talent was appreciated both by Henri and Pierre Matisse. One might have thought that Henri would be shocked by the young Catalan surrealist. Not so. Matisse had an open mind about other people's art, even though he was inclined to disapprove of bohemians.