Reactions to Hilary Spurling’s
The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse, vol. I, 1869-1908
published autumn 1998 by Knopf (US) & Penguin (UK)
‘Hilary Spurling has given us a definitive biography that reads like a detective story. It is an extraordinary and brilliant book . . . extraordinary in revealing . . . so much about Matisse that was previously unknown and unexpected . . . brilliant in the clarity and compactness of its prose and in the sharpness of the insights that appear on page after page . . . This is a truly indispensable biography . . . vividly drawn, utterly compelling and profoundly moving.’
–John Elderfield, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
One can only eagerly await the second volume of Spurling’s definitive biography of Henri Matisse.
–J. Carter Brown, Director of the National Gallery of Art, New York Times Book Review.
Again and again the reader fears for Matisse, as in a good novel: how will he get out of this hole? who will buy his work? what if he gives up? . . . Her second volume cannot arrive too soon.
–Julian Barnes, New York Times Book Review
‘This is a marvellous book–beautifully written, masterly in its research and wonderfully wise in its depiction of character, circumstance and the vicissitudes of the artist’s vocation.’
–Hilton Kremer, Washington Times
‘Spurling brushes aside all our preconceptions about the painter to reveal a personality–and a personal history–none of us had guessed at. . . . This first volume of a full biography of Matisse is a triumph of research and writing, a work of literature worthy of its subject.’
–Richard Dorment, New York Review of Books
The Unknown Matisse is aptly titled . . . Unlike the luckier and more charmed Picasso, Matisse was haunted by the specter of failure, poverty and ridicule, in part because he–again, unlike Picasso–experienced all three. . . . It’s thrilling to learn what Matisse was looking at, what he experimented with, endured and suffered on the way to becoming one of the great painters of our century.’
–Francine Prose, Washington Post
‘Her clear narrative keeps one turning the pages almost as if reading a novel . . . a major accomplishment and sure to be a landmark in the literature on Matisse.’
–Jack Flam, Art News
‘This book is marvellous to read. Having finished it, one wants to start all over again.’
–Svetlana Alpers, Key Reporter
‘An extraordinary new view of Matisse . . . When I first heard that Hilary Spurling was planning to write about Henri Matisse, I wondered what an English literary biographer could possibly tell me about my intensely French artist grandfather . . . The results are absolutely astonishing. For anyone interested in Matisse’s work, this book will be a revelation . . . The book is almost like a mystery story, packed with surprising developments . . . Once started this is a very hard book to put down. I couldn’t recommend it too highly.’
–Paul Matisse, Amazon online
‘A smashing good biography . . . Hilary Spurling’s role is advocate, and she is a formidable one . . . A painter’s development is both an intimate and an open transaction, and Spurling makes us feel its peril.’
–Editors’ Choice, Best Books of 1998, New York Times Book Review
‘Spurling’s book is the opposite of the massive bound collections of file cards that are biography’s current fashion. . . . I do not know of another book which, while lavishly setting its subject among his fellows, illuminates so searchingly the human and artistic struggles of a painter’s life.’
–Richard Eder’s 10 Best Books, Los Angeles Times
"Hilary Spurling has written a rich and deeply illuminating life, with all
the feeling and passion for the work that Henri Matisse himself would have
appreciated. This is a true biographical masterpiece."
-Mark Bostridge, The Independent on Sunday
"A quite glorious biography . . . Hilary Spurling fixes his story with
great humanity and rigorous scholarship . . . She has dug among the
archives and looked very exactly at the pictures, but she doesn’t read
backwards from them as though they were somehow inevitable; she sees the
risk and drama in each . . . This is a biography with the tact and timing
of a very good novel."
-Michael Pye, The Scotsman
"Spurling has done better than anyone else at uncovering intimate
information about Matisse. She has interviewed more people than anyone
else; has combed the public archives more thoroughly; and, most important
of all, has had greater access than any previous researcher to Matisse’s
correspondence. This volume is full of previously unknown incidents and
details that correct mistakes and misapprehensions and that clarify or
expand the known record to complete what is, astonishingly, the very first
serious biography of the artist-and destined to remain the standard
biography for a long time."
-John Elderfield, The Guardian
"Superb . . . A reviewer called the first volume of this biography ‘a
sunburst.’ Now that Spurling’s long task is completed, I can only repeat
the compliment: her book is both dazzling and warming."
-Peter Conrad, The Observer
"Inspired and innovative biography . . . What is remarkable about this book
is the way that Spurling enters into the character of her subject,
communicating his charm, his obsessiveness and restlessness, his enjoyment
of life, his vulnerability, the tensions within him, and-hardest of all-his
creativity . . .
"What is particularly impressive is her ability to weave a huge amount of
[primary] material into an easy and, at one level, entertaining narrative,
with her subject’s voice as one of many. Her touching account of Matisse’s
relationship with the elderly Renoir in the south of France is a good
example of her artistry. Lucid and unhurried as it is, this is a major work
of scholarship, which must transform our view of the artist’s work . . .
"The narrative is sustained by her sensitivity and her ability to
convey-often through quotation-the artist’s emotions as well as the
physical process of creating the work. The biographer’s feeling for the
period creates one of the most pleasurable aspects of the book: its
evocation of life in artistic circles, whether Paris around 1910, St
Petersburg before 1914 or the south of France during the Second World War .
"Matisse is not directly described in this biography; rather, his character
and his creativity are suggested by innumerable touches, as it were, of
paint. Spurling has shown herself a writer worthy of her subject."
-Giles Waterfield, The Independent
‘Outstanding as an interpreter of his art and life alike, she provides fresh illumination on every page. It is a superlative achievement.’
–Richard Cork, The Times
"Spurling’s Matisse is an outstanding biography, as full of insight into
the pictures as it is revealing about the man. It is not necessary to have
read the first volume to enjoy the second instalment, though it is certain
that new readers will want to return to his formative years. They will not
be disappointed. "
-Jeanette Winterson, The Times (London)
"I cannot praise Spurling’s measured, brilliantly researched and
wonderfully written biography enough."
-Adrian Searle, The Guardian
"Every day, Matisse set aside an hour or more to write letters to family
and friends. Only a small portion of these has been published. Spurling, an
expert at mustering biographical evidence, draws on this source material to
gripping effect. Her account activates small details, such as the physical
constraints that undermine creativity, as well as key relationships,
including Matisse’s involvement with important collectors . . .
"Spurling’s monumental biography challenges [the view that Matisse was a
lightweight compared to Picasso]. It deepens and makes more complex our
understanding of Matisse."
-Frances Spalding, The Sunday Times
‘Spurling Volume 1 invites comparison with John Richardson’s Life of Picasso . . . her achievement is in some respects even greater than Richardson’s . . . Hilary Spurling has transformed Matisse studies.’
–William Feaver, Times Educational Supplement
‘A superlative achievement . . . It is a dramatic, moving and sometimes comical story, and all one can hope is that, without relaxing her admirably rigorous standards, Spurling won’t keep us waiting very long for Volume Two.’
–Elizabeth Cowling, Times Literary Supplement
‘Matisse . . . suggests the opposite of the strenuous, discomforting novelty which so much of the art of this century has aimed at embodying . . . It is the purpose of this biography, triumphantly achieved, to reverse that notion in every detail . . . this book transforms our sense not only of Matisse but also of his work.’
–Martin Gayford, Sunday Telegraph
‘Miraculous . . . the best life of a painter that I have ever read . . . For all the intelligence and sensibility of her approach, Spurling charts [Matisse’s life] with the agonising excitement of great fiction.’
–Grey Gowrie, Daily Telegraph
From the Hardcover edition.