Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



September 2008

"For Matisse, as for Delacroix, travel was a means of cleansing the eye. He needed an unfamiliar world and a new light, for the same reason that he needed the alien decorative discipline of Oriental art, so as to break through to a fresh way of seeing."


Hilary Spurling, Matisse, the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, p. 129

One Long Satisfying Reading Adventure

Dear Reader,

How do I know when I have had a satisfying reading experience? One of two things happens: either I feel as if I have lost a good friend and mope around for a while, or I find another book that will somehow revive the relationship that began with the first one.

For the past several months, I was lucky enough to have found four books that produced a chain of sustained reading happiness.

Lucinda Hawksley's Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites (Walker & Company, New York)

When I see the painting Ophelia (1852) by John Everett Millais at the Tate Britain, I am suitably impressed with its technical bravado. It is one of the best examples of what I call "in love with death" in art. There, floating amid the lush vegetation, is the drowned Ophelia (c.f. Shakespeare's Hamlet).The painting is large and realistic enough to make me want to jump in and test the waters. Ophelia is one of the most accomplished of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings and made its model, Lizzie Siddal, famous.

Before I read Lucinda Hawksley's book, I did not understand how prophetic the ties were between model and subject. Lizzie took up with, modeled for, and painted with the hot new group of young handsome and frequently poverty-stricken painters who named themselves the PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood). It is impossible to write about this book without using lots of adjectives. However, Hawksley does not focus on the PRB or the movement in art history, but on the tall, thin, red-headed shop girl living in gritty Victorian London, who becomes enamored with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter, poet and all around…well, you need to read for yourself and come up with your own adjectives.

Yes, Lizzie does end up a suicide like Ophelia, but her journey to that point is a compelling study in gender politics. Hawskley's success is that, by the end of the book, I came to understand Rossetti's motives, and also how Lizzie managed to live a life on the fringe, while manipulating him and being manipulated by him.

AND, this book has one of the most shocking endings I have ever read. Now, when I read a poem by Rossetti, it will never be the same.

Ross King's The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism (Walker & Company, New York)

As soon as I finished reading about Lizzie Siddal, I felt the urge to stay in the mid-nineteenth century, so I reached for Ross King's latest book. He is, hands down, my favorite art history writer. Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling and Brunelleschi's Dome made me a devoted fan, and I wasn't disappointed in this thoroughly-researched foray into1860's Paris. King plays history and politics like fine-tuned instruments and presents a symphony of success, scorn and survival in the art world. I could hear the art-laden carts grinding through the streets, as hopeful artists traveled to the Salon, where rejection reigned supreme. In fact, King's twin themes are Success and Rejection in the personages of Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier and Édouard Manet. Never heard of the former? How about the latter? Precisely. The old saying that "fame is fleeting fast away" takes on a life of its own in this book. King made me think about what success is. And isn't. Bravo, Ross King!

Hilary Spurling's The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908 (Alfred A. Knopf, New York)

There I was, happily lost in Paris in 1869 but feeling bereft because Ross King's book had ended, when voilà, I laid eyes upon the book with 1869 in its sub-title. Amazing how things happen. I had started this book five years ago and abandoned it. Matisse is one of my favorite artists, but I must not have been in the mood, or it seemed too over the top, ever-so-rich in details surrounding the birth of one Henri Matisse in "a tiny, tumbledown weaver's cottage on the rue du Chêne Arnaud in the textile town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis in the evening on the last night of the year, 31 December 1869" (page 3-4). Whatever the reasons for not reading the book before, I was ready that day.

If there ever was an artist who continued to make art against all odds, it was Henri Matisse. His was a continual struggle, and Spurling makes the most of each turn in the unmarked road, every stone in his shoe, and all storms that pelted him along the way. One thing becomes abundantly clear: Matisse chose that road and nothing was going to make him end his journey. He had the heart (at times, necessarily hard) and mind (curious and relentless in his desire to learn from his next artwork) of a great artist.

If you are an artist and have ever doubted yourself, this book is for you. If you have ever been hungry (for acceptance, for respectability, for food), read this book.

Hilary Spurling's Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: the Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954 (Alfred A. Knopf, New York)

Halfway through reading the above book, I ordered this one because I was thoroughly engaged in the life of Matisse: his travels, his wife, his daughter, his sons, his paintings, his sculptures, his friends, his patrons, his models, his houses, his illnesses, and his finances. I own six art books on Matisse, and his work is shown in many others. As I read Spurling's second volume, I was forever pawing through my art books, looking for a good picture of the work being described. Reading gave me a voracious appetite for seeing Matisse's art. I read about the painting "La Musique" and remembered the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. The gift of reading art history is that I now know some of the story behind a painting that has entranced me for almost fifty years (Judy's Journal - November 2004).

What can happen when an artist reads about another artist? In this case, I learned more about making art and/or received affirmation for what I knew or suspected. I wrote in my journal, "The first volume of the Spurling bio was splendid. Matisse was my kind of guy: stubborn, rejected, obsessed, passionate, hardworking. I like Spurling's impetus for writing both books: she wanted to set the record straight about one of the most misunderstood artists in modern art."

I copied whole paragraphs from Spurling's book into my journal because I recognized that, at times, Matisse was speaking directly to me. "I work without a theory…" (page 373); "…his old instinctive ability to compose spontaneously in colour - 'Knowing myself a colourist, I picked my colors as I needed them'" (page 360).

I chose the opening quotation of this month's Judy's Journal about the effect of traveling because the same thought had occurred to me, but when I read it in this book, it brought me closer to Matisse. And that was not a bad place to be.

What books brought you closer to the giants of the visual and/or performing arts? Email me:

Did you see my ad in the September 2008 ARTnews Artist's Directory?

P.P.S. At 9:40 a.m. this morning (August 17), I bound #100/100 of Reciprocity: An Artist's Book!!!! Production took nine months and six days, not counting pre-production work. HOO-RAY! Now, on to marketing… Any suggestions or ideas?