Thursday Book: More dangerous than alcohol

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The Independent Culture
"I DON'T think there is such a thing as real tranquillity." So Matisse wrote after a brain tumour had killed a young cousin staying in his and his wife's care. By the time the reader encounters these words, towards the end of this book, they resonate with the entire history of Matisse's early life. For though this volume ends with Matisse writing his "Notes of a Painter" in which he famously celebrated "an art of balance, purity and tranquillity, free from any nagging or disturbing element", the story to this point has been largely one of humiliation, anxiety and grinding poverty. It is well known that Matisse suffered parental opposition, public mockery and financial insecurity, but neither the degree of misery he endured nor its varying causes have ever been uncovered in such revelatory detail.

The depth and intensity of Hilary Spurling's research compel attention from the opening chapter. Matisse grew up in Bohain, in north-eastern France, where his parents ran a general store and acted as seed-merchants. In this drab town he dreamed through his schooldays, surrounded by mind- numbing drudgery.

Two years after Matisse was born, Bohain was occupied by Germans in the Franco-Prussian war. The atrocities endured fed into the malaise that dogged Bohain, where the surrounding woodlands had been cut down to make way for sugar beet.

The only source of aesthetic pleasure lay in Bohain's 42 textile workshops. The weavers were famed for the richness of their colours and their willingness to experiment. And textiles, as Spurling reminds us, were to become a vital ingredient in Matisse's art.

As a boy, he dreamed of being an acrobat, knowing that in reality he would end up heaving sacks in the family business. Intestinal problems saved him from this fate and he turned to law. He discovered his vocation during a brief spell in hospital when a fellow patient, copying a Swiss landscape from a coloured reproduction, urged him to try and do the same. "From the moment I held the box of colours in my hand, I knew this was my life... It was a tremendous attraction, a sort of Paradise Found in which I was completely free, alone, at peace."

He took off for Paris, initially with a small allowance from his father, but was later made to feel he had brought his family disgrace. The reader might expect that from this point the story would be familiar. But there is no section in Spurling's biography that is not grippingly fresh. She animates the whole mise-en-scene, producing new information about his mistress Camille, his models, friends and the places he visits.

She shows what made Gustave Moreau such a sympathetic teacher. We catch a glimpse of Matisse's father standing beside his son's first Salon exhibit, listening to the rude remarks it attracted. Matisse desperately accepts five francs for three paintings from the owner of a junk stall on the Boulevard Raspail.

As this book progresses, each new picture becomes a battleground in which customary methods are defeated by a violent new vision. His friends wrote his name on government health warnings: "Matisse is more dangerous than alcohol! Matisse has done more harm than war!"

Soon after Matisse met Amelie Parayre, he told her he loved her dearly but would always love painting more. She understood, married him, successfully absorbed his illegitimate daughter Marguerite into their home, and seems always to have played a supportive role. Spurling is equally insightful on Matisse's involvement with his children and produces the astonishing story of Matisse holding his daughter down while a doctor slit her throat, performing an urgent tracheotomy. The anguish this caused comes through in his portraits of Marguerite, shown wearing a neckband to hide her scar.

But Spurling's main coup is her uncovering of the Humbert scandal. This was a huge financial scam in which Matisses's in-laws were innocently embroiled but which rebounded on the whole family. The family closed ranks and this, Spurling argues, had an insidious effect on Matisse's reputation, giving rise to the notion that he was tight and cold-hearted. In Spurling's contrary view, numerous hidden acts testify to his "habitual generosity".

Spurling is artful at pacing her story, curtailing her use of art criticism but then suddenly offering a clinching opinion. There are some riveting images among the documentary photographs and the 35 colour plates. Spurling never lets us lose sight of the artistic struggle, though she often looks sideways at surrounding figures, with many telling vignettes, including a wonderfully sure account of the role played by Gertrude, Leo, Michael and Sarah Stein in raising Matisse's reputation.

Spurling even outdoes her chief rival, John Richardson, the first two volumes of whose life of Picasso set a new benchmark in artists' biographies. Like Richardson, Spurling has cast her net wide. Her massive achievement makes much previously written about this heroic period seem like a travesty. She also shows what a rich array of artists, dealers, collectors and writers contributed to the making of this century's greatest colourist.