Photo Credit: Jennie
"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,
One Long Satisfying Reading Adventure
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
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,
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
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
Ross King's The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade
That Gave the World Impressionism (Walker & Company, New
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
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
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
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); "
old instinctive ability to compose spontaneously in colour - 'Knowing
myself a colourist, I picked my colors as I needed them'"
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Did you see my ad in the September 2008 ARTnews Artist's
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?