Matisse: Father and Son

Matisse: Father and Son

by John Russell
"Russell brings Matisse and his family to life more vividly and sympathetically than any previous writer. His presentation of the 800 letters between the artist and his son makes for a wonderfully readable and enlightening book. The year's best."—John Richardson, Picasso biographer

"This book was one long revelation."—The Art Newspaper

"Opens another


"Russell brings Matisse and his family to life more vividly and sympathetically than any previous writer. His presentation of the 800 letters between the artist and his son makes for a wonderfully readable and enlightening book. The year's best."—John Richardson, Picasso biographer

"This book was one long revelation."—The Art Newspaper

"Opens another window on the private world of Henri Matisse." —Vogue

"Splendid ... achieves a special immediacy."—New York Times Book Review

"It is not often that a great subject is handled by a writer equal to the task, but here we have such an event." —Art Times

The relationship between the great Post-Impressionist artist Henri Matisse and his son, influential art dealer Pierre Matisse (1900-1989), is at the heart of this deftly revealing and moving biography, now available in paperback.

Pierre Matisse moved from France to New York in his 20s to establish a gallery, where he introduced such major European artists as Miró, Giacometti, Balthus, and Dubuffet to the United States. Renowned art critic John Russell has created a seamless narrative based on exclusive access to Pierre Matisse's vast unpublished archives, which hold 30 years of near-daily letters between father and son as well as a vast correspondence with the artists he represented. The result is an insider's look at the lives and creative efforts of some of the 20th century's most important artists.

Author Biography: JOHN RUSSELL, former chief art critic of the New York Times, is one of this country's most respected writers on the arts. The author of many books, including Abrams' London and Paris, he has been honored by the governments of Britain, France, Germany, and Austria, and is a recipient of the Mitchell Prize for Art Criticism. He lives in New York.

Editorial Reviews
Henri Matisse's impact on the art world is widely documented and commonly known, but the role his son Pierre played in promoting American interest in the European art of the first half of this century is a tale not as widely disseminated. In Matisse: Father and Son, renowned art critic John Russell explores the relationship between the giant of modern art and his son, an influential New York gallery owner.
Phyllis Tuchman
...[S] absorbing tale about the ordinary life of an extraordinary painter, sculptor, draftsman and printmaker....Pierre Matisse's gifts as a correspondent must also be acknowledged. Those who wrote to him seem to speak straight from the heart....Russell...has produced an important record of the way European art of the 20th century entered the hearts and minds of Americans.
The New York Times
Pierre Matisse never made a go of it as a painter. His career at the Ministry of Justice also stalled, and he decided against joining the foreign service, which he had once considered. Instead, Pierre, second son of the great Henri Matisse, moved to New York City, opened an art gallery, and introduced America to some of the most explosive art of the 20th century.

John Russell's Matisse: Father and Son is an in-depth look at the professional life of Pierre, and his relationship with his father. It is, in one sense, an epistolary love story of parent and child. It's also the history of modern European art in America, of the convoluted business dealings behind fine art, and of the passion that fueled that business. This is a tale of families and war, friends and intrigue, and artistic genius.

Henri and Pierre Matisse laid their lives out for each other in the letters they sent back and forth across the ocean. How fortunate we are that they lived in a time when the telephone was still viewed with suspicion. They lived so recently that the art they considered cutting-edge is still intensely provocative in our day, yet their time is distant enough that pen and paper was still the standard medium of communication.

Russell has sifted through a trove of correspondence and assembled for us the workings of pre- and post-war American culture. It is a heady mix. Sartre writes this and Hemingway thinks that. Picasso prefers here and Calder goes there. In the cocktail of European and American art luminaries, Pierre was the straw that stirred the drink.

In fact, Russell does nothing less than trace the development of the American taste for modern art. We meet the major gallery owners and are indulged with pleasant bits of cattiness about their various personalities. We also meet the collectors -- James Thrall Soby, Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. -- who did so much to shape what we consider to be Art. These are the (mostly) men who formed the collections of our great cities, the Chicago Art Institute and New York's Museum of Modern Art among them. Apparently, Pulitzer began his collecting days as a young lad, adorning his Harvard dorm-room wall with a "difficult" Picasso. For these men, and by extension, for all of us, Pierre Matisse was the gateway to the European art world.

Meanwhile, amid the currents of intellect and art, between episodes of forming American taste, there is the relationship of a father and his boy. Henri, like any father, wants his son to benefit from his own experience. Thus he imparts his views on exercise ("Riding a horse is the best possible workout"), on tidiness and order ("If I have forced myself to be on time, and to keep to the same schedule every day, it is because I was born disorderly"), and on art forgery, as he consoles Pierre for a purchasing mistake ("What amazes me in cases of this sort is that the people who buy fakes don't realize from one day to another that the object that means so much to them has actually nothing to give. It's rather like the story of love").

This last line sounds like the words of a man going through a divorce, which, in fact, Matisse was. And Pierre, writes Russell, was his father's chief confidant during those trying times: "It was only to his son Pierre that Henri Matisse felt able to speak freely on all these matters. His hurts, his grudges, and his grievances -- all hemorrhaged on page after page."

In particular, Henri wrote a good deal about his separation from Amelie, his wife of 40 years. They had raised their children and weathered the storms of poverty and war, but Amelie could not stand Henri's dependence on a charismatic young woman, his assistant and model, Lydia Delectorskaya. Amelie left him and began telling everyone how he had been cheating on her for years. She demanded an exact accounting of every asset, every picture, every last stick of furniture, in what might be considered quite a modern manner. In short, Amelie took Henri to the cleaners, and he turned to Pierre for comfort and support.

Apparently, genius and talent are no protection for a parent's heart. Faced with his son's supportive but nonpartisan attitude in the face of Mrs. Matisse's schemes and rages during the divorce proceedings, Henri was driven to that classic parental lament: "I only hope you will not be as misunderstood by your own children as I am misunderstood by mine."

Russell will not have us misunderstand Henri, if he can possibly help it. The author has triumphed in his selection and organization of material. It must have been a daunting task to confront the more than 800 letters that are housed in the Paul Matisse Gallery archives. Russell successfully draws from all these separate bits of history to construct a wonderfully coherent whole, a thoroughly compelling family and artistic history.

--Rachel Fishman

Library Journal
Henri Matisse was an avid letter writer, and his correspondence with his son, Pierre, is the basis of Russell's narrative. The Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York was until the late 1980s a discreet, discriminating bastion of primarily European modern art. Through decades of letters and Pierre's correspondence with some of the artists he represented, including Dubuffet and Mir , we see the father-son and artist-dealer relationship firsthand. The real interest here, however, is Henri Matisse and his art. He is compelling in his own words as a father who wants to keep his family intact through a rancorous divorce, the occupation of Paris, the capture of his daughter Marguerite, life as a French resister, and later ill health. Pierre Matisse emerges as a good son who looks after everything just as his father instructs. Amusing morsels of gossip make the book worth reading; there is enough material here for several volumes. A friend of Pierre for many years, former New York Times chief art critic Russell has made an admirable first rendering of these newly available archives.--Ellen Bates, New York Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Antiques and the Arts Weekly
It is doubtful that anyone could have written this better than John Russell.
What Russell brings to this narrative is the authoritative tone of the scholar with the delicious confidence of an insider...
Associated Press
An extraordinary book...combines biography and art history in a colorful and lively narrative...
Sunday Times, London
...provides further insights into this great artist's vulnerability...This is a fascinating book...
Town and Country
...engrossing new book...brings the past to life...
J. Carter Brown
...[A] book full of fresh insights, even if...somewhat marred by its double focus....The revelation of this material is that there was as much communication between father and son as there was....With the privilege of an exclusive first look at so much unpublished material, there is much here to intrigue and delight. As to the father's side of the story, one can only eagerly await the second volume of Spurling's definitive biography of Henri Matisse.
The New York Times Book Review
Michael FitzGerald
With the all-seeing eyes of a longtime art-world insider, John Russel has mined the vast correspondence between Henri Mattise and his youngest son, Pierre (1900-1989), to craft the most revealing portrait to date of the deply secretive and domestically troubled artist, and to recall a son who escaped his father's shadow to become one of the most important art dealers in America... Finally, the veil is lifted by Russel, who had unlimited acess to Pierre's collected papers... With unflinching candor, Russel reveals the sad and sordid case.

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Abrams, Harry N., Inc.
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Chapter One

A Checkered Childhood,

Pierre Matisse was born in Bohain-en-Vermandois, in the flatlands of northern France and not far from Valenciennes, on June 13, 1900. The second son of Henri Matisse and his wife, Amélie Parayre, he had an older brother, Jean, born in 1899, and a half-sister, Marguerite, born in 1894.

    This may sound like a traditional family structure — well-balanced, well-paced, and potentially close-knit. But Pierre's was not a conventional childhood. For several years, his parents were too poor to keep their children together. The infant Pierre was cared for by his grandmother in Bohain, or by a wet nurse in the neighboring town of Busigny, while his father and mother lived and worked in Paris. When he was not quite three years old, he had bronchial pneumonia and nearly died of it. In 1902 and 1903, misfortunes not of their own making befell his mother's parents and made their name notorious throughout France. When Henri Matisse and his family retreated to Bohain, they were met with a universal obloquy.

    As to Pierre's relations with his father, there is an accepted legend, most of which will be challenged in this book. But it is important to know that Pierre Matisse was not simply a Matisse. By way of his mother, he was also a Parayre. To that extent, he had in his early years the equivalent of a dual citizenship.

    The Parayres came from a little town called Beauzelle, near Toulouse, where their father had been a schoolteacher. Not everyone found Beauzelle fascinating -- Henri Matisse's son-in-law, Georges Duthuit, once described it as "all sky and stagnation" — but the Parayres were remarkable people.

    They had fine looks — their women were said to have "the look of Spanish queens" — and they believed that they could bring about a better France. Every one of them, in their different ways, set about it as soon as they could. Pierre's future aunt, Berthe Parayre (1876-1945), was to be a distinguished pioneer in the field of women's education in France. She was also a tender and a reassuring presence for Pierre when he was very young. Amélie Matisse's father, Armand Parayre (1844-1922), was a man of darting and often dazzling intelligence. Initially as an inspired primary-school teacher, and later as the editor and managing director of an activist Republican newspaper called the Avenir de Seine et Marne, he came to the notice of many an important political figure.

    Among them were Georges Clemenceau, the greatest French statesman of the day, and the young socialist député, Marcel Sembat, who was to be an important patron of Henri Matisse at a time when he badly needed one. Henri Matisse's father- and mother-in-law, Armand and Catherine Parayre, were models of open-mindedness and absolute trust. As a son-in-law, and in worldly terms, Henri Matisse had nothing to recommend him. At the time of his marriage, he was a failed painter who had no money of his own. He was also what would now be called the single father of his daughter, Marguerite, although he had formally acknowledged his responsibilities towards her in 1897. There was no indication that he would ever be able to support a family. But Armand and Catherine Parayre did not for a moment hesitate to make him welcome.

    The Parayres operated at that time within a social, intellectual, and political context of which Henri Matisse had had no previous experience. They stood for free thinking, for the separation of church and state, and for the secularization of the French educational system. Monarchists, Bonapartists, and reactionaries of every kind were to be shown the door, and a free, equal, and fraternal society would come into being. For many years the Parayres had been friendly with Senator Humbert, a veteran of French politics who was the self-styled grand seigneur of Beauzelle and later became the French Minister of Justice.

    It so happened that Armand Parayre had taught Frédéric Humbert, the senator's son, when he was in school in Beauzelle. It also happened that Catherine Parayre had been on intimate terms in childhood with Frédéric's future wife, who was born Thérèse Daubignac. (Frédéric's wedding in Beauzelle in 1878 had been the single most spectacular event in the town's history.) Eventually, Armand and Catherine Parayre became respectively the confidential factotum of and (hardly less important) the social secretary of Senator Humbert's son Frédéric and his flamboyant wife. Their roles may not sound very important, and (fortunately for them) they knew very little of their employer's activities. But they were nonetheless at the epicenter of a certain Paris. The Humberts had ramified and often mysterious financial activities, into which many of the most prominent people in France had become involved, often in ways that they hoped would never be known. There were also thousands of small investors all over France who had put their trust in the Humberts.

    The Matisses of Bohain and the Parayres of Beauzelle had outwardly nothing in common, and there was no reason why Henri Matisse and Amélie Parayre should ever have met. But in October 1897 Henri Matisse went to a wedding in Paris and happened to sit next to Amélie at the uproarious banquet that followed. Henri Matisse at that time was not yet the professorial figure of legend. He was known as a prankster, as a ribald and anti-clerical songster, and as someone who had once broken up a café concert performance just for the hell of it.

    Amélie was then twenty-five years old. There was no banal flirtation between them, even when the wine flowed, but each recognized the other as true metal, and when they got up from the table she held out her hand to Henri Matisse in a way that he never forgot. Nor was Amélie deterred by the downturn in his affairs. When he told her that he already had a daughter, she said, "Don't worry about that." She saw in him what she most wanted as a lifetime's companion — someone who would always go his own way, regardless of what others might think of it.

    Hers was a family in which unpopular causes were often espoused. She was an archetypal straight arrow, and it moved her deeply when Henri Matisse said to her, "Mademoiselle, I love you dearly, but I shall always love painting more." As for Henri's daughter, Marguerite, Amélie saw to it that she was loved, cherished, and cared for as an integral member of their family.

    The Parayre connection was very much to the fore in the wedding ceremony, which was held in January 1898 in a fashionable church in Paris — Saint-Honoré-d'Eylau. Amélie's dress came from the great couturier Worth (doubtless as a present from Madame Humbert). Amélie's witnesses were high officers of state. Henri's witnesses were good men and true, but they were not there for show.

    If Pierre in his first years had few of the comforts, either moral or material, of a settled family life, it was because it was in Paris, if anywhere, that Henri Matisse's career would take off. To return to Bohain would signal an ignominious defeat.

    If he was spared that defeat, it was largely because of the Parayres. Amélie's Aunt Noélie and two of her brothers ran a successful women's shop called the Grande Maison des Modes. Before her marriage, Amélie had shown a gift for designing, making, and modeling hats for a fashionable clientele. In June 1899 she found a partner and opened a shop of her own on the rue de Châteaudun. This allowed Henri and herself to live, with Marguerite, in a tiny two-room apartment on the same street.

    Armand and Catherine Parayre at this time had put their whole energies at the service of Frédéric and Thérèse Humbert. Not only had Armand entrusted the Humberts with his private fortune, such as it was, but he had refused to accept a salary for his services. It was believed all over Paris that Thérèse Humbert would one day come into a gigantic amount of money, and Armand Parayre thought it an honor to serve Frédéric, whose election to the French Parliament he had done much to bring about in 1894.

     His confidence was widely echoed. Investors would pour money into any scheme that the Humberts promoted. Jewelers were delighted to give Madame Humbert unlimited credit. Private loans, no matter how large, were rarely refused. Public figures by the dozen were drawn into the Humberts' orbit and never got out of it. Armand and Catherine Parayre virtually lived with the Humberts, whether in Paris or in the country near Fontainebleau. The Humberts could ask anyone they liked to their table, and very few of them refused. Nor did it escape their guests that the Humberts lived like royalty.

    All this was a long way away from the high-minded brainstorming sessions at Beauzelle, but it never seems to have occurred to Armand Parayre that there might be something overblown, not to say putrid, about the Humberts and their festivities. If the chief of police came to dinner, and the leader of the Paris bar, and if the president of France and the prime minister had been there the week before, who could imagine that it was all a fraudulent charade? Certainly not Armand Parayre who, with his brother and two of his brothers-in-law, was in charge of the savings bank that the Humberts had founded in 1893.

    But then, in May 1902, iniquities of which the Parayres knew nothing were reported in the French press. Henri Matisse's father-in-law had worked in good faith for Frédéric Humbert, only to find that his employers were confidence tricksters and swindlers on a monumental scale. Humbert and his wife had got out of France just in time, leaving Armand Parayre to face not only a national scandal but, quite possibly, a prison sentence.

    Ruin and disgrace stalked society at every level. Madame Humbert's jeweler on the rue de la Paix killed himself. One of Frédéric's brothers was found hanged. More than one related murder was suspected. Parayre and pariah became synonymous. When Armand Parayre took refuge with his daughter Berthe in Rouen, the police kept a twenty-four-hour watch on the house. To say that the Parayres "lost everything" would be an understatement. Not only were they ruined and ostracized, but when the Humberts were found in Madrid and brought back to Paris in chains, the case took on a new dimension. As their presumed accomplice, Armand Parayre was charged with complicity in fraud and forgery and imprisoned in the Conciergerie.

    At that point, it was not the Parayres who kept the family together. It was Henri Matisse. Thanks to his early years in a lawyer's office, Henri Matisse was able to busy himself to great effect in the organization of his father-in-law's defense. When all about him lost their heads, burst into tears, and felt more than sorry for themselves, Henri Matisse dealt with their problems one by one, He got Frédéric's uncles to stop blowing off steam to no purpose. He dealt with newspaper editors and forced them to retract their wilder accusations. He negotiated with the prosecuting magistrate and got permission to confer with Armand Parayre and to help him prepare for his days in court. To every detail of an immensely complicated case, he brought qualities of clarity and dispatch. Nor was he at all intimidated by the new world with which he had to deal.

    In a matter of weeks, Armand Parayre was acquitted of all charges. On January 31, 1903, he was provisionally released. For Henri Matisse, this must have been deeply satisfying. He had proved himself not only as a full member of the Matisse/Parayre family, but as its only effective member at a time of trial and torment. It is a very curious fact that although the entire episode had been entirely creditable to Henri Matisse, it was never straightened out in print until Hilary Spurling published The Unknown Matisse.

    The ordeal had taken its toll, in more than one way. His doctors ordered Henri Matisse to go to Bohain and take two months' complete rest. Aunt Berthe still had her job in Rouen, but she had been diagnosed as having lung troubles that might indicate the early stages of tuberculosis. Amélie had lost both her hat shop and the apartment on the rue de Châteaudun. For the first time, Henri, Amélie, and the three children were united in Bohain, having nowhere else to go.

    It was not a happy visit. Not long before, Henri Matisse's father had suffered heavy financial losses from the failure and disgrace of one of his wife's relations in Le Cateau, Bohain in winter smelled awful and looked awful.

    Local investors both big and small, all the way from Bohain to Lille, had lost every penny that they had risked with the Humberts. Henri was derided all over town as "that idiot Matisse," Pierre somehow picked up the rumor that his father would have to give up painting altogether and take a job as adviser to one of the more upmarket weavers in Bohain. The weavers in question had a few rivals in France, and they were rightly proud of their status. But the children were by now old enough to sense that in other respects this had been a grim in place in which to grow up. At home there was, moreover, the perennial problem that Pierce once outlined with Characteristic brevity to Rosamond Bernier: "My grandfather loved his son, and his son loved him, but they couldn't get through tto one another. My father never talked about that, but I think that it made him very unhappy. My father worried about me. As we say in France, `Little children, little worries. Big, children, big worries.' And it's true. Children don't think about it. They don't know how much their parents worry about their existence, their future, their direction in life. Young people take things for granted. They only think about themselves. My father often worried about Marguerite, Jean, and myself."

    That "they couldn't get through to one another" was to be a recurrent agony for the Matisse family. But Pierre in boyhood seems to have tussled with it in silence, if at all. When Henri Matisse began to do well as a painter, and the family could live together at Clamart, near Paris, Pierce was mildly obstreperous. If it was raining, he would walk up the street in the gutter on his way to school in hopes of catching a cold and having to stay at home.

    But then he was never a show-off student. When he went to the Lycée Montaigne in Paris, the good students in class sat in the front row, and the bad ones in the back row. Pierre and his friend, the future painter Yves Tanguy, sat side by side in the back row until Tanguy was expelled for sniffing ether.

    Pierre was not expelled, but he didn't win any prizes, either, and his parents thought it was time for him to shape up. His brother, Jean, was at that time in a boarding school in Noyan, where the headmaster was known to Tante Berthe. Very soon, Pierre was put on the train to Noyon.

    It was a disagreeable experience for him. His brother was older, stronger, and more violent than he was. When they fought — which was all the time — Pierre always got the worst of it. Humiliations of that sort are never forgotten.

    There were better times, though. In 1911 Tante Berthe was appointed director of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Ajaccio, Corsica. Pierre and his sister Marguerite enjoyed going to see her there, and at the age of twelve he was allowed to dance the mazurka for half an hour every evening with some of his aunt's more favored pupils. Privileges of this sort were to have a fateful result when he returned to Ajaccio at the end of World War I.

    Time passed, though not — as far as Pierre was concerned — in an obsessedly purposeful way. In 1918 he was due to be called up for military service. At that particular stage in World War I, it was relatively agreeable to be sent to man the guns in a large fortress. This was arranged, therefore. But no sooner had Pierre arrived at the fortress in question than he caught the Spanish influenza that was raging in Europe. "I was there with six other men," he said later, "and I was the only one to come out alive." Seconded to the tank corps, he hurt his back and was sent to work as a driver at headquarters. It was safe and relatively easy work, much coveted by well-connected young men.

    After the war ended in November 1918, Pierre still had two years' service to fulfill. He summed them up to Rosamond Bernier in his most laconic style: "It was in Paris. You were sent from office to office. I would go home for lunch. Then I started painting. It didn't turn out to be anything. I had a love story, the way young people do. I was in the office that dealt with demobilizations. The adjutant in charge made me very angry because he was always calling me by the most filthy names. So when I saw his application for demobilization on my desk, along with hundreds of others, I put it at the bottom of the pile. It stayed there for six months."

    Thus revenged on Authority, Pierre set out on his life as a grown man.

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