The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse -- The Early Years, 1869-1908

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Henri Matisse is one of the masters of twentieth-century art and a household word to millions of people who find joy and meaning in his light-filled, colorful images—yet, despite all the books devoted to his work, the man himself has remained a mystery. Now, in the hands of the superb biographer Hilary Spurling, the unknown Matisse becomes visible at last.

Matisse was born into a family of shopkeepers in 1869, in a gloomy textile town in the ...
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Overview

Henri Matisse is one of the masters of twentieth-century art and a household word to millions of people who find joy and meaning in his light-filled, colorful images—yet, despite all the books devoted to his work, the man himself has remained a mystery. Now, in the hands of the superb biographer Hilary Spurling, the unknown Matisse becomes visible at last.

Matisse was born into a family of shopkeepers in 1869, in a gloomy textile town in the north of France. His environment was brightened only by the sumptuous fabrics produced by the local weavers—magnificent brocades and silks that offered Matisse his first vision of light and color, and which later became a familiar motif in his paintings. He did not find his artistic vocation until after leaving school, when he struggled for years with his father, who wanted him to take over the family seed-store. Escaping to Paris, where he was scorned by the French art establishment, Matisse lived for fifteen years in great poverty—an ordeal he shared with other young artists and with Camille Joblaud, the mother of his daughter, Marguerite.

But Matisse never gave up. Painting by painting, he struggled toward the revelation that beckoned to him, learning about color, light, and form from such mentors as Signac, Pissarro, and the Australian painter John Peter Russell, who ruled his own art colony on an island off the coast of Brittany. In 1898, after a dramatic parting from Joblaud, Matisse met and married Amélie Parayre, who became his staunchest ally. She and their two sons, Jean and Pierre, formed with Marguerite his indispensable intimate circle.

From the first day of his wedding trip to Ajaccio inCorsica, Matisse realized that he had found his spiritual home: the south, with its heat, color, and clear light. For years he worked unceasingly toward the style by which we know him now. But in 1902, just as he was on the point of achieving his goals as a painter, he suddenly left Paris with his family for the hometown he detested, and returned to the somber, muted palette he had so recently discarded.

Why did this happen? Art historians have called this regression Matisse's "dark period," but none have ever guessed the reason for it. What Hilary Spurling has uncovered is nothing less than the involvement of Matisse's in-laws, the Parayres, in a monumental scandal which threatened to topple the banking system and government of France. The authorities, reeling from the divisive Dreyfus case, smoothed over the so-called Humbert Affair, and did it so well that the story of this twenty-year scam—and the humiliation and ruin its climax brought down on the unsuspecting Matisse and his family—have been erased from memory until now.

It took many months for Matisse to come to terms with this disgrace, and nearly as long to return to the bold course he had been pursuing before the interruption. What lay ahead were the summers in St-Tropez and Collioure; the outpouring of "Fauve" paintings; Matisse's experiments with sculpture; and the beginnings of acceptance by dealers and collectors, which, by 1908, put his life on a more secure footing.

Hilary Spurling's discovery of the Humbert Affair and its effects on Matisse's health and work is an extraordinary revelation, but it is only one aspect of her achievement. She enters into Matisse's struggle for expression and his tenacious progress from his northern origins to the life-giving light of the Mediterranean with rare sensitivity. She brings to her task an astonishing breadth of knowledge about his family, about fin-de-siècle Paris, the conventional Salon painters who shut their doors on him, his artistic comrades, his early patrons, and his incipient rivalry with Picasso.

In Hilary Spurling, Matisse has found a biographer with a detective's ability to unearth crucial facts, the narrative power of a novelist, and profound empathy for her subject.

The art, youth, early maturity, and life of artist Henri Matisse are thoroughly examined in this insightful biography that also includes 24 pages of color reproductions.

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Editorial Reviews

Richard Dorment
Any number of artist's biographies follow a familiar trajectory from failure to triumph. What makes Spurling's life unusual is that she has uncovered a secret family history which goes a long way toward explaining the enigma of Matisse. . . 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.
The New York Review of Books
Elizabeth Cowling
A superlative achievement. . . successfully marrying scholarship of a very high order with a vivid, energetically paced text. . . The teeming richness of the characterization gives The Unknown Matisse the riveting human interest of a classic 19th-century novel.
Times Literary Supplement London
Jackie Wullschlager
A mesmeric portrait. . . An illumination, not only in its unravelling of the obscure life of a great artist, but as an example of the coming of age of a new sort of biography.
Financial Times London
Richard Shone
Because his family maintained strict control of both personal and posthumous privacy, no full biography of Matisse has ever been written until now. . . Spurling's research is formidable. . . . Spurling keeps her head above the agitated waters of art history, attending to the art and life and avoiding psychobiographical interpretation. . . If her passion for watertight factuality sometimes leads to passages of inertia, it has immense advantages: no one can write about Matisse without this book in hand.
Bookforum
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Despite Matisse's prestige in the annals of 20th-century art, there has been no biography published for the general reader until this hefty first of two volumes. "Unknown" as much for that omission as for his family's "invincible discretion," Matisse has been allowed to face posterity as a less interesting, less dynamic character than some of his contemporaries. It is no surprise, then, that the stock techniques of sympathetic biography seem a bit more defensive than usual here as Spurling (author of Ivy: The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett) tries to counter her subject's reputation as the prickliest, stodgiest hedonist ever to lift a paintbrush. Challenging conventional views of Matisse that acknowledge his greatness as an artist "while simultaneously belittling him as a human being," Spurling offers anecdote after anecdote illustrating his quaint mischievousness and selfless encouragement of other artists. She does a remarkable job of evoking the northern textile town of Bohain-en-Vermandois, where Matisse first assimilated the stringent demands of survival and acquired a reciprocal appreciation of luxury and irreverence. Still, when he decided at age 20 to become a painter, it was as drastic a rebellion as he seemed capable of, and Spurling never quite accounts for Matisse's transformation from a Beaux-Arts wannabe into a reluctant leader of the avant-garde. Her discovery that the "Humbert Affair" of 1902, a financial and political scandal of massive proportions, directly implicated Matisse's in-laws and, by extension, Matisse himself, makes for a gripping read and reveals much about the artist's early development. Six years later, when Harmony in Red emerges out of the artist's intense struggles with the art establishment and with his own radical impulses, the reader is as exhilarated as his biographer could possibly desire. 150 b&w photos; 24-page color insert not seen by PW. (Nov.)
Booknews
Oxford-educated journalist Spurling uncovers the involvement of Matisse's in-laws in a monumental financial scandal, describing how it affected his health and how it led to his "dark period". Her examination of Matisse's artistic and career progression is informed by an astonishing breadth of knowledge about his family, fin-de- siecle Paris, the conventional Salon painters who shut their doors on him, his artistic comrades, his early patrons, and his rivalry with Picasso.
Julian Barnes
...[A] work of deep research and intense concentration, full or archive-sweat, legwork and looking....it is...a splendid work.
The New York Times Book Review
James M. Morris
Her account of the adversity the young Matisse endured -- financial, critical, physical, psychological -- is so persuasive that, time and again, we expect him to renounce his vocation and find another career....An insistent sense of how physical place worked on Matisse and drove him to achievement informs this biography.
WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
Kirkus Reviews
A masterfully written biography of Matisse, whose dedication to an art of "balance, purity, and tranquility" was his primary defense against a life of hardship, isruption, and loss. Few who know Matisse's work would equate the dynamism of his palette full of saturated, singing colors with the fierce emotional intensity of the man himself, but Spurling, a British theater critic and literary editor of the Spectator, makes the connection. With tremendous sensitivity to her subject, she casts the story of Matisse's early life as "a flight toward the brilliant light" from the dark and dour northern landscape of his birthplace, Bohain-en-Vermandois, near the Belgian border. It was, she points out, the same cultural and geographic area that had given rise to van Gogh some 16 years earlier, and while Matisse's own artistic fever was never quite as incapacitating as his predecessor's, it was still intense. Matisse suffered from unrelenting insomnia for much of his life and sometimes "feared that the blazing colors he had let loose would end by making him go blind." Fortunately, he escaped that fate, although he did not escape being maligned and ridiculed. When Matisse submitted Le Bonheur de vivre to the Salon des Indépendents in 1906, for example, practical jokers defaced handbills posted outside the local urinals so that they read: "Matisse has caused more harm in a year than an epidemic!" and "Matisse drives you mad!" Spurling delves into Matisse's past with a historian's eye for detail and a fervor that gives her narrative compelling force. She maintains that, from the start of his career, Matisse undertook nothing less than a groundbreaking exploration of color, form, andemotionality in painting. "Matisse was not simply discarding perspective, abolishing shadows, repudiating the academic distinction between line and color," she writes, "he was attempting to overturn a way of seeing evolved and accepted by the Western world for centuries."

Matisse's genius was to make conscious subjectivity the defining force of his painting; Spurling, in this first volume of his biography, excels by revealing the forces that shaped both the man and his aesthetic.

From the Publisher
"This book is extraordinary in revealing not only so much about Matisse that was previously unknown and unexpected, but also so much of real importance to an understanding of him and his art . . . Truly indispensable for anyone interested in Matisse, or in the milieu in which he lived and worked, or in the forces that shaped the art of this century—with a human dimension that is vividly drawn, utrterly compelling, and profoundly moving."
—John Elderfield, curator of the 1992 Matisse retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

"Hilary Spurling, most accomplished of biographers, sheds an entirely new light on the humiliations and failures that Henri Matisse had to overcome in order to develop into the greatest French painter of this century. Her account of Matisse's early years is as riveting as a novel by Zola."
—John Richardson, author of A Life of Picasso

"Besides being a first-rate scholar, Hilary Spurling is an artist in narrative who has unearthed a fascinating story and told it brilliantly. This is a terrific achievement."
—Michael Holroyd, author Bernard Shaw

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780756779214
  • Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 11/28/2004
  • Pages: 480

Meet the Author

Hilary Spurling was born in England and educated at Oxford University. She has been theater critic and literary editor of The Spectator, is now a regular book reviewer for the Daily Telegraph, and has written biographies of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Paul Scott. She lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

1869-1881: Bohain-en-Vermandois

    Henri Matisse often compared his development as a painter to the growth of a seed. "It's like a plant that takes off once it is firmly rooted," he said, looking back at the end of his life: "the root presupposes everything else." He himself was rooted in northeastern France, on the edge of the great Flanders plain where his ancestors had lived for centuries before the convulsive social and industrial upheavals of the nineteenth century slowly prised them loose. His father's family were weavers. Henri Emile Benoît Matisse was born in a tiny, tumbledown weaver's cottage on the rue du Chêne Arnaud in the textile town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis at eight o'clock in the evening on the last night of the year, 31 December 1869. The house had two rooms, a beaten earth floor and a leaky roof. Matisse said long afterwards that rain fell through a hole above the bed in which he was born.

    His parents, who worked in Paris, were paying a New Year visit to their hometown. They called their first child Henri after his father, following a family tradition that went back four generations. The first Henri Matisse had been a linen-weaver in the nearby village of Montay in 1789, when the French Revolution abruptly halved demand from the court for the fine linens of Cambrésis. This ancestor, Henri Joseph Matisse, married a tanner's daughter from Le Cateau and moved with his loom to the tanners' quarter outside the mediaeval town walls, settling round about 1800 on the place du Rejet at the top of the rue du Chêne Arnaud: a patch of low-lying wasteland heavily flooded each year when the winter rains washed liquid mud down from the high ground on one side to meet water rising up through the tanneries lining the banks of the river Selle on the other. Hardship and adversity bred strong wills and stubborn resistance in the Matisse family. Henri Joseph's son, Jean Baptiste Henri, abandoned the humble weaver's trade to become a factory foreman in one of the mechanised woollen mills beginning to spring up in the town in the 1850s. His son in turn would leave home and abandon textiles altogether.

    This was Emile Hippolyte Henri Matisse, the painter's father, who found work in his twenties as a shop-boy in Paris. By January 1869, when he married Anna Héloïse Gérard, the daughter of another Cateau tanner, he had been promoted to trainee buyer in ladies' underwear. He worked for the Cour Batave on the brand-new boulevard Sébastopol, a highly fashionable store in a custom-built modern shopping complex specialising in lingerie, trousseaux, ladies' stockings, bodices, blouses, personal and household linen. This sort of job was a natural progression for the clever, ambitious son and grandson of weavers in a region that supplied the capital's apparently insatiable demand for novelties and fancy goods in the 1860s. Hippolyte Henri would take pride all his life in his thorough grounding at the Cour Batave, which served him well on regular buying trips to Paris long after he had moved back to set up his own business nearer home. It sharpened his eye for quality, confirmed his distaste for slack or shoddy performance, laid down the exacting standards by which he judged himself, his world, and especially his eldest son ever afterwards.

    Anna Gérard, who had also gone up to Paris to work in a hat-shop, was twenty-four when she married Hippolyte Henri Matisse, who was four years older. Warmhearted, outgoing, capable and energetic, she was small and sturdily built with the fashionable figure of the period: full breasts and hips, narrow waist, neat ankles and elegant small feet. She had fair skin, broad cheekbones and a wide smile. "My mother had a face with generous features, the highly distinctive traits of French Flanders," said her son Henri, who spoke always with particular tenderness of the sensitivity and the innate generosity reflected in his mother's character as in her looks. Throughout the forty years of her marriage, she provided unwavering, rocklike support to her husband and her sons.

    Hippolyte Henri's own parents had both died by the time he was twenty-five, leaving him with no immediate family except an elder sister married to a local weaver and a younger one working, like her sister-in-law, as a hat-maker in Paris. Anna herself belonged to a large and cohesive family of Gérards, established for three hundred years in and around the rue du Chêne Arnaud as tanners, furriers, glove-makers, leather-dressers and skin-merchants. Anna's father, Benoît Elie Gérard, dealt in hides from the family tannery as well as running a small farm on the rue des Arbalétriers where she was born in 1844, the fourth of his eight children. Her younger brother Emile--the first boy born after four older sisters--would mechanise and modernise the tanning works. The go-ahead Emile stood godfather to Anna's son Henri, who grew up surrounded by a watchful, protective network of aunts and uncles, first, second and third cousins, as well as more distant connections related by blood or marriage, all originally based in Le Cateau but spilling out increasingly in his own and his parents' generation into the surrounding countryside, several taking the train the hundred miles south to Paris to find jobs on a temporary or permanent basis.

    One of Anna's elder sisters had married a railwayman, François Mahieux, who switched to innkeeping and ended up running a hotel eighteen miles away at Bohain-en-Vermandois, where Hippolyte Henri's second cousin, Edouard Lancelle, ran a medical practice and doubled as the mayor's secretary. Cousin Lancelle lived with his family on the rue Peu d'Aise. The Mahieux ran the Golden Lion Hotel two streets away on the rue St-Antoine. Henri Matisse was eight days old when his parents moved with him to Bohain to take over a general store on the corner of the rue Peu d'Aise and the main street, called rue du Château. The shop sold everything from seeds to groceries, hardware and housepaints, although over the next few years most of the sidelines would be swallowed up by the seed-merchant's side of the business.

    The Matisse-Gérard partnership prospered (as did the Mahieux-Gérards at the Golden Lion) on the strength of Hippolyte Henri's business flair, his own and his wife's contacts, their joint commitment to strenuous, unremitting effort, backed up by her small dowry and his modest inheritance. On his father's death in 1865, Hippolyte Henri had inherited a one-third share in the tiny Matisse estate, consisting chiefly of the property on the rue du Chêne Arnaud, which passed, before or just after his marriage, from his family to Anna's. Her retired parents were living there by New Year's Eve, 1869, when their grandson Henri was born. Anna's father died there in his sixty-first year three months later, on 27 March, and on 29 March, as the family gathered for the funeral, a second baby was born in the same cramped cottage.

    This was Emile's first child, another Emile Gérard, cousin and almost exact contemporary of Henri Matisse. The two young fathers, starting out simultaneously on what proved to be highly successful parallel careers, stood godfather to one another's sons. The two boys grew up in a world that placed a high premium on enterprise, initiative, risk-taking, a willingness to experiment and to keep an open mind. Each was groomed to succeed his father at the head of a rapidly expanding business. Over the next twenty years the Bohain hardware store under Hippolyte Henri Matisse grew into a streamlined wholesale and retail operation with a fleet of delivery wagons supplying seed, fertiliser and fodder to beet-growers and transporters all over the surrounding plain. Emile Gérard meanwhile made a fortune by installing a tallow works alongside the tannery on the river Selle, shortly afterwards building a second factory to manufacture the French food industry's latest product, an imperial invention called margarine.

    The two brothers-in-law belonged to a breed of dynamic young businessmen who were turning away from the rural past all over France to build a brave new urban world. But the changes they dreamed of with such prodigious confidence were literally devastating. Henri Matisse was born just as the accelerating juggernaut of industrialisation and deforestation reached top speed in his native region. When his family settled on the rue du Château, Bohain was already halfway through its transformation from a sleepy weavers' village deep in the ancient forest of the Arrouaise to a modern manufacturing centre with ten thousand clanking looms installed in the town itself and the villages round about. The population, which had taken forty years to grow from two to four thousand before the large-scale installation of steam machinery in the 1860s, would very nearly double again in the twenty years before Matisse finally left home for Paris.

    The town's principal product was textiles but sugar-beet output also doubled in the first ten years of his life. Energetic clearance meant that the last pockets of surrounding woodland were cut down to make way for beet plants in 1869, the year of Matisse's birth. The windmills and belfries that traditionally dotted the rolling flatlands of the Vermandois were far outnumbered in his childhood by the smoking chimneys of sugar refineries and textile mills. The streams on these chalky downs--Bohain stood high in the centre of a triangle marking the sources of the Somme, the Selle and the Escaut--ran with dye and chemical refuse on leaving the towns. The streets of Bohain were slippery with beet pulp in autumn, and the air was rank all winter with the stench of rotting and fermenting beets. Visitors from the outside world in the 1870s and 1880s were shocked by the drabness of the town itself, and by the stark, treeless outlines of the newly denuded land round about. "Where I come from, if there is a tree in the way, they root it out because it puts four beets in the shade," Matisse said sombrely.

    The memories he recalled with pleasure from his boyhood in Bohain were mostly of the countryside. He remembered parting the long grass in spring to find the first violets, and listening to the morning lark above the beet fields in summer. In later life he never lost his feeling for the soil, for seeds and growing things. The fancy pigeons he kept in Nice more than half a century after he left home recalled the weavers' pigeon-lofts tucked away behind even the humblest house in Bohain. Matisse said that for all the exotic specimens in the palatial aviary specially constructed for him in the 1930s, the best songbirds were still the robin and the nightingale, which could not survive captivity. They sang freely in the copses and thickets round Bohain, and in the ruins of the mediaeval castle where he played as a boy within a stone's throw of his father's shop at 26 rue du Château.

    Boys from the streets round the castle banded together to form a gang with headquarters in the crumbling keep from which underground passages, built for communication and supplies in mediaeval sieges, still ran out beyond the town walls. Each year the Château boys, armed with homemade shields and swords, challenged their contemporaries from other parts of town in a stylised form of gang warfare that dated back to the Middle Ages, when Bohain had been a fortified frontier town on the edge of the fertile European flatlands fought over successively for centuries by the armies of France, England, Austria and Spain. The local children were familiar from infancy with the folklore of battle and bloodshed attached to every stick, stone, ditch and hummock. They played at knights on horseback as their fathers had done before them, but the earliest invaders in these parts were Roman battalions marching against the Gauls (who included the tribe of Vermandii, or Vermandois) in 57 B.C. Caesar's Gallic Wars, which would be one of young Henri's set books at school, took place partly in and around his hometown.

    One of the castle's three subterranean passages led to the Chêne Brulé, or Blasted Oak, a vast, spreading ancient tree which bore the scars left by marauding Spanish soldiers who had attempted to destroy it in the seventeenth century. Henri Matisse climbed it as a child, painted it as a young man, and recalled it with affection to the end of his life. It was the town's only landmark (at least until the construction of a monumental town hall when he was fourteen), and it figured endlessly in fireside stories recounted by the old people he remembered sitting out their lives in the chimney corner with sticks to chase the cats away from the hearth. As a small boy, he listened to tales told by a neighbour--"Old Cousin Becks"--who remembered Russian soldiers entering Bohain in 1815 after Waterloo. The Russians had occupied the region for three years, and the young Henri grew up hearing Cousin Becks' highly coloured accounts of barbaric Tartars and Kalmucks "with little piggy eyes" marching past her door "armed with bows and arrows . . . at the time of the great invasion." To the end of his life "Kalmuck" remained for Matisse a term of abuse.

    In his own childhood, the invaders were Prussian. German soldiers (who occupied Bohain three times in Matisse's lifetime) marched past the seed-shop on the rue du Château for the first time on New Year's Day, 1871, the day after his first birthday. The whole region had been waiting for them in a state of increasing tension since the Emperor's catastrophic defeat at Sedan four months earlier. Prussian troops had already bombarded and captured the local market town of St-Quentin sixteen miles away. After a brief flurry of sniper fire, Bohain responded, as the town always had done to foreign occupation, with grim resignation. The population retreated behind sealed doors and windows for nearly three uneasy weeks while French and German forces massed for the battle, which took place on 19 January in the snow just outside St-Quentin. The citizens stood on their town walls all day, watching the heavily outnumbered French army suffer yet another decisive defeat, and barricaded themselves in their cellars as the survivors withdrew in silence through the streets that night. A few hours later, when the fleeing French soldiers stumbled into Bohain--filthy, famished and exhausted--they found the inhabitants waiting for them in the snow with food and lanterns to light their way.

    Several thousand Germans, still covered in mud with eyes starting from their heads like caged beasts unleashed, poured through the town in pursuit on 20 January. France capitulated the same day. The occupation lasted just over another month, during which Bohain went through the usual cycle of retaliation, reprisals, arrests, armed searches and hostage-taking. A curfew was imposed. One citizen was shot dead on his own front doorstep, and another fired at for sticking his head out the window. People waited sullenly on their unwelcome lodgers. "We gave them or let them take whatever they wanted," wrote a compatriot, describing the shame and suppressed fury of that wretched winter. Henri himself was almost fourteen months old, just beginning to walk and talk, when the Germans finally left Bohain on 25 February. On his first visit to Germany nearly forty years later, he told one of his students that the only words he knew in her language were Brot and Fleisch, or bread and meat. He never forgot his mother repeating like a grace at meals: "Here's another one the Germans won't lay their hands on." The phrase would become a familiar refrain throughout the region during the incursions of the next seventy-five years and more.

    The day the Germans marched away in 1871 was celebrated by the whole of Bohain on the town square, where a newly released captive, half weeping and half laughing, held up his little grandson as a pledge of the future to the cheering crowd. Children who were babes-in-arms that day were never allowed to forget it. They were reared on stories of blood-soaked fields around St-Quentin and village cemeteries filled with soldiers' graves. They knew by heart the atrocities perpetrated by their oppressors, the precise spot where each occurred, and the legendary feats performed in return by valiant civilians. In Bohain, the local hero was a ten-year-old boy--a future lawyer's clerk like Henri himself--who shot at an uhlan with his father's gun. At the lycée in St-Quentin, it was the school gym master who had personally taken eleven Germans prisoner with the aid of a scratch troop of firemen. Even the travelling Belgian hypnotist, who made a profound impression on Henri in his teens, won French hearts by describing how he reduced a group of mesmerised Germans to grovelling at his feet.

    "Today's generation will bear their country a greater love than their elders," wrote the author of a history of Bohain, which was also a patriotic call to arms, in 1897: "they know what we have suffered, and they have been brought up in the belief that they have a lofty duty to fulfil." It was drilled into Henri and his classmates at primary school in Bohain that it would be up to them to retrieve the lost honour of their country. They sang warlike songs ("Children of a frontier town, / Born to the smell of gunpowder . . .") and carved defiant messages ("Death to all Prussians!" and "Frenchmen never forget!") wherever they would catch the eye. They watched historic companies of archers, crossbowmen and cannoneers parading round the streets to military marches played by the town's uniformed brass band. They practised regularly in shooting booths at town and country fairs: Henri became a crack shot, and his cousin Edgard Mahieux won first prize in the town's grand shooting contest in 1887.

    Matisse never talked afterwards about what it meant to have been born into this peculiarly intense phase of his native martial culture (save to say once, when he was under extreme pressure in his early sixties, that the only way he could forget his work for a few seconds was to level a gun at the target in his local shooting booth). But he never entirely escaped the poisonous atmosphere of failure and humiliation in which he had grown up. "We were beaten, and we knew it," wrote one of his younger schoolfellows, describing the heavy weight of military and political disaster that pressed down on their childhood and youth. Their mothers spring-cleaned the houses, but it took more than scrubbing to get rid of the sour smell of defeat. "He may not have understood it, but everyone around him recalled and retold the story; he saw through their memories what he had not seen at first hand," wrote the biographer of St-Quentin's most famous son, the historian Henri Martin, who was born just before the Russian occupation in 1815. "He knew the bitterness of it, he had sensed the violence. Ten years--twenty years--later that humiliation could still make him flush and tremble. Memories like that do not fade." They profoundly affected Matisse's whole generation in France, especially those born on the front line, as he was. They would lead him to experiment in his twenties, like many of his contemporaries, with anarchism as an answer to the mistakes of the past. In the end it was Matisse who, of all his Bohain classmates, came closest to fulfilling the destiny drummed into them as children: that theirs was the generation born to bring fresh lustre to France's tarnished glory.

    Not that there seems to have been anything out of the ordinary about Henri Matisse as a boy. The stringent demands of a new business meant that he was often sent to stay with his maternal grandmother in Le Cateau, where he said he was always happy. She shared her house, at any rate in the early years of her widowhood, with her son's family so she could look after both her grandsons, Henri Matisse and Emile Gérard, while their parents worked with the dogged perseverance of their northern race. In July 1872 the young Matisses had a second son, Emile Auguste, who died just before his second birthday, when Henri was four years old. His mother was already pregnant again, bearing her third and last child, Auguste Emile, two months later, on 19 July 1874.

    The boys grew up in a world that was still detaching itself jerkily from a way of life in some ways unchanged since Roman times. The coming of the railway had put Bohain on the industrial map, but people still travelled everywhere on foot or horseback. They drew water from the town wells (one of the marks of belonging to the rising middle class was possession of a private well like the Matisses'), and lit lamps or went to bed at nightfall. Life was hard, monotonous and effortful even for the relatively affluent, and the young Matisses at this stage were far from well off. They lived in rented rooms behind the shop, and drove themselves regularly to the brink of exhaustion and beyond. Matisse remembered his father coming home from buying stock in Paris with his nerves so strung up that he would sleep for thirty-six hours at a stretch. Hippolyte Henri said that a young man starting out had a choice between providing for his family and taking time off to rest ("Eat well or sleep well"). His household rose before dawn, which meant 4 a.m. in summer, ready for the working day to start at five. Even when there was no longer any need for him to do so, he drove a delivery cart himself, returning over the painfully slow, rutted country roads from outlying farms so dog-tired that his wife would meet him with a lantern at the stable door to unharness, feed and water the horses.

    Matisse's memories of his childhood were of stern and single-minded application. "Be quick!" "Look out!" "Run along!" "Get cracking!" were the refrains that rang in his ears as a boy. "He who does not honour the penny is not worth the dollar," Matisse's own son would repeat long afterwards on the streets of New York, echoing his Bohain grandfather's tart comment: "If you don't like the fruits, you're not fit to eat the jam." Matisse's conversation to the end of his life was peppered with down-to-earth sayings that looked back to a rural world where money was scarce, rations skimpy, work backbreaking and repetitive. Survival itself depended on habits of thrift, vigilance and self-denial. Matisse prided himself in later life on being a man of the North. Born in the Département du Nord, brought up just over the county border in the Département de l'Aisne, he could speak the raw, terse, expressive patois of Picardy like everyone else in Bohain ("Chacun s'n pen, chacun s'n erin," or "Chacun son pain, chacun son hareng," was his example of a typical local sentiment, roughly translated as "Everyone for himself"). His family name was often spelt in the Flemish style, "Mathis" or "Mathisse." He came on both sides from Flemish stock with the touch of Spanish blood that accounts for the dark colouring, fine bones and fiery temperaments so common in the region. The painter's father bore a striking resemblance to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles Quint, who was also born and bred in Flanders.

    The Matisses belonged on the border dividing the turbulent Picards from the relatively phlegmatic, law-abiding Flemings. So did the historian Gabriel Hanotaux, who grew up speaking the Picard dialect in Beaurevoir, five miles west of Bohain, a village where people on the outskirts were already Flemish-speakers:

Picardy or Flanders, the land is rude, rough . . . [and] scoured by winds from the north. I remember the great skies of my native country, crossed by lines of horizontal cloud stacked one above another over the flat plain, with long flights of crows strung out as in the naïve engravings of the Loensberg Almanac. . . . The Middle Ages lived on in our midst.

    Hanotaux put the harshness of his countrymen, their brute strength and fierce determination, down to the appalling climate, the vast horizons, the immense, daunting uniformity of the undulating downs and the soft, rainy, often glowering, sometimes radiant light.

    If the sun brought a brief splendour even to the drab beet fields in summer, in winter the towns and villages turned in on themselves. Piled snow lined the streets of Bohain, ice covered the cobblestones two or three inches deep, water froze overnight indoors in jugs and basins. The roads were blocked for months at a time by snowstorms, blizzards, freezing fog and bitter winds raking the high plateau on which Bohain stood exposed, shorn of its protective forest, ringed by underground springs which welled up as soon as the ice thawed, flooding the unpaved streets in the poorer parts of town knee-deep in mud and slush. "I came into the world shivering with cold and, when I think of it now, it makes me shiver still . . . ," wrote Hanotaux. "Our fathers knew how to endure, and we too had to grow accustomed to endurance."

    Children who survived these ordeals (many did not) had to be tough, wary and defensive; and it was their fathers' job to make them so. In the traditional culture of the North, the father was masterful, demanding and often impossible to please, the mother indulgent and supportive. Henri's mother took his part all her life, while his father reined him in and spurred him on. When Matisse in turn had children of his own to bring up, he saw any lapse in discipline or open display of tenderness as weakness on his part. This was especially true when it came to drawing and painting. Matisse felt it was his duty to his children to be their sternest critic, just as his father had always been to him. Any child who drew spontaneously as an instinctive form of free expression needed cracking down on: "When a father finds his kid scribbling on a bit of paper, he says: 'Come on now, throw that away and run along to your drawing lesson.' " Drawing lessons in the 1870s and 1880s in Bohain and the vicinity meant strict mechanical copying of geometrical objects with penalties for straying even slightly from the approved method or attempting to use colour. For the young Henri they represented all that was dreariest and most stultifying about the adult world.

    Providing unconditional encouragement was the mother's role, and Henri's played it with enthusiasm: "My mother loved everything I did." He was by his own account a dreamy child, docile and obedient but inattentive, frail and not outstandingly bright. His own delicate health, and the loss of his middle brother, made his mother specially attentive, and he in turn urged himself to special efforts for her sake. She was always the first person to whom he showed his early paintings, and on the rare occasions when she seemed less than satisfied, the effect on him was devastating. She ran the section of the shop that sold housepaints, making up the customers' orders and advising on colour schemes. The colours impressed Henri as a boy much as they did another future painter, Félix Valloton, whose parents also kept a provincial hardware store in the 1870s:

The second shopwindow was the best: twelve tubular glass bottles, drawn up in battle order on a stand and filled to the brim with colours whose very names made me feel proud. They were, in order, pale chrome yellow, dark chrome yellow, cadmium, cobalt blue, ultramarine, Prussian blue, milori green, English green, rose madder, Austrian vermilion, Turkey red and pure carmine.

    Matisse said he got his colour sense from his mother, who was herself an accomplished painter on porcelain, a fashionable art form at the time, and almost the only one in which it was considered proper for a woman to indulge (twenty years later Marie Laurencin's mother would reluctantly permit her to train as a painter of china in the vain hope that she might retain at least some shreds of bourgeois respectability). Anna Matisse worked in gouache on breakable bowls and pots, which have long since disappeared except for a single plain white salad bowl, decorated with great charm and delicacy in a severely simple pattern of dark blue dots and lines.

    Her kitchen remained always a source of warmth and comfort. The life of the household revolved around the big stove, kept permanently alight with a pot of coffee on the hob, within easy reach of the shop on one side and the yard on the other, with its washhouse, well and herb-and-vegetable plot. There was also a range of high brick outbuildings which included stabling for the horses, space for the wagons, and storage in the loft for kegs or crates of chemicals, sacks of seed, rice, grain and cattle cake. Anna Matisse had a tiny pair of brass scales with which she weighed out birdseed and fish food for the fancy cage-birds and ornamental goldfish that were traditionally part of a seed-merchant's stock-in-trade (both would reappear in Matisse's life and work). Sixty years afterwards in Nice, her son's thoughts reverted to the simple homely remedies and recipes passed down in the lost world of his childhood. He remembered the lime-blossom tea his mother took to calm her nerves and help her sleep, and he insisted that of all his own innumerable remedies for chronic insomnia, the best was beer and chips.

    These were the basic staples of his native region, where meat was eaten sparingly (mostly hutch-rabbit, pigeon or pork in an area so famous for charcuterie--hams, patés, sausages, chitterlings and trotters--that the bells of St-Quentin were said to peal as a refrain, "Tripe and black pudding / Tripe and black pudding"). He wrote nostalgically of the pungent local cheese, le Maroilles, and he knew how to make three different sorts of onion soup, which was a speciality in Bohain. Another was hot pickled herring served with stoved potatoes cooked in a flat covered clay pot. In his early twenties Henri painted one of these pots in his mother's kitchen along with the earthenware dishes and lidded pans, the apples, eggs and onions, the bottles, jugs and half-empty beer glasses that make up the traditional standbys of Flemish painting.

    It was not only the paraphernalia of domestic life that remained unchanged. For a child growing up in Bohain in the last part of the nineteenth century (and well into the twentieth) contact with the outside world was still largely confined to itinerant traders, pedlars, tinkers and bands of exotic, dark-eyed Gypsies selling baskets, telling fortunes, sometimes even leading a chained dancing bear. They came in spring and summer, when the roads were passable, with the fairmen who set up their sideshows and booths on the town square, selling toys, gingerbread, striped humbugs and sticks of twisted barley sugar. The whole year was marked out by a seasonal round of markets, fairs and festivals (les fêtes de la Kermesse) which ranged from May Day and 14 July to a child's personal saint's day (Henri's was 15 July), or the celebrations for the different districts when the bigger boys disguised as knights staged their mock battles. The little ones rode on the merry-go-round--rogayo in the Bohain patois--with a donkey to turn the wheel that made the wooden horses go up and down on their painted poles. "How charming they were, how simple and sober, the dear old barrel organs that played for our rides on the rogayo," wrote Matisse's oldest friend, Léon Vassaux, reminding him of the fun they had together at the country fairs of their youth.

    The grand annual fairs in the big towns were elaborate theatrical productions with clowns, tumblers and fast-talking salesmen who were also seasoned Grand Guignol performers in shows as colourful as they were brutal and macabre. The painter Amédée Ozenfant, growing up in St-Quentin at the turn of the century, remembered the fairground rat-killer testing his poisons on the town's stray dogs before a circle of interested children hoisted on their parents' shoulders, and the tooth-puller in a gold-frogged silver uniform, with white and scarlet plumes tossing in his big black hat, who arrived in a carved and gilded carriage with a red-plush throne or scaffold on which public extractions were carried out to the sound of drumrolls. Stunts like these--thrilling, grisly, richly freakish--answered people's need to blot out at regular intervals the dull, bleak grind of their daily lives. Although Bohain, like St-Quentin, officially belonged to Picardy, both were, as Ozenfant observed, "as Flemish as a Breughel painting."

    IT WAS A SOCIETY that offered little imaginative outlet beyond its fairs, the occasional travelling circus and games of knights-on-horseback. Matisse said long afterwards that his twin ambitions as a child had been to be a clown or horseman (sometimes he varied the formula to acrobat or actor, on the one hand, and jockey on the other). He experienced early the overriding need to escape, to perform, to draw and hold an audience, and he described his need in terms of the travelling salesmen of his youth:

If there were no public, there would be no artists. . . . Painting is a way of communicating, a language. An artist is an exhibitionist. If you took away his audience, the exhibitionist would slink off too, with his hands in his pockets. . . . The artist is an actor: he's the little man with the wheedling voice who needs to tell stories.

    In later years Matisse acquired a reputation for extreme seriousness which made him something of a butt behind his back to the younger Parisian artists who frequented the Cirque Medrano with Picasso. Matisse's single-mindedness worried them and made them nervous. By this time he had good reason for preferring the outside world to keep its distance, but his young detractors might have been surprised to know that when someone told him he was the spitting image of the Medrano's clown Rastelli, Matisse took it as a compliment.

    The young Henri was a champion mimic who could always reduce his friends to helpless laughter with his imitations of pompous or overbearing elders. As a student in Paris in the 1890s, he could sing or chant all the street cries and calls of the Latin Quarter, a habit he picked up as a boy on the streets of Bohain, which rang with the din of competing knife-grinders, salad-sellers, toffee-makers, men offering to mend broken umbrellas, glue cracked crockery, recane chair-seats or cobble shoes ("Each street vendor had his own song, cry, special call, whistle, bell, drum, clapper or rattle," wrote a contemporary from Bohain). Street life fascinated Henri as a child long before he started filling his student sketchbooks with Parisian street scenes--cabmen with their fares and horses, passersby, music-hall performers--drawn with an agile, observant line and a sardonic eye for detail.

    On summer evenings the working people of Bohain would bring out their chairs and sit gossiping in front of their houses to the great delight of inquisitive small boys like Henri and his friend Léon, who lived next door to the Matisses. Even before they were out of short trousers, these two spent hours watching and listening to the neighbours on the rue Peu d'Aise: Cousin Becks with her Tartars and Kalmucks; the dressmaker, Old Mother Bifou, who upset Léon's mother by sending both boys home with fleas; and Mme Massé, who earned her living by winding wool and amused the boys by regularly adding a new baby to her tribe of handsome children. Henri would paint one of the Massé girls when he grew up, and he also painted Mother Massé herself, wearing the white cap of the region, seated at her spinning wheel in her comfortable, cluttered interior--the typical single work-cum-living room of Bohain's working class--with her woollen skeins laid out ready for the skein-winder on its four-legged stool, and the coffeepot simmering behind her on the Flemish stove. Léon was a favourite with a melancholy spinster in a black lace bonnet called Clémence Lescot, who had a repertoire of songs dating back before the Revolution which she sang to the accompaniment of a guitar. Henri was fascinated by the three Mlles Merlot, hairdressers on the rue du Château, and the two Mlles Nobécourt, unmarried sisters--one skinny, one plump and courted by a local farmer--who kept a hat-shop a little further up the main street on the rue Fagard. All his life he would take a fond and knowledgeable interest in anyone who made hats like his own mother, several of his aunts and both his grandmothers.

    The two boys were inseparable. Léon was two years younger, the same age as Henri's brother who died, and perhaps in some sense he took his place. At all events, he would remain Henri's firm friend and follower--in time of crisis his most faithful supporter--for the rest of their lives. He was kind, clever and original in his own unobtrusive way, as independent and as much of a deadpan comedian as Henri himself. They roamed the countryside together in summer, and played in winter in the Matisses' loft or the Vassaux's kitchen. "I can see us still," Léon wrote, "seated at the kitchen table performing manoeuvres with a squad of lead soldiers--and our fright when we heard my mother ring the bell." Later they experimented with chemicals borrowed from Henri's father's storeroom (Valloton wrote an autobiographical novel in which one of the narrator's friends turned purple after falling into a vat of dye in the back room of the family hardware shop, and another died from tasting a mysterious green powder). Henri was about twelve years old and Léon ten when they helped themselves to materials for an experiment known as "the Philosopher's Lamp," which was supposed to produce hydrogen; when the lamp blew up in their faces, they were lucky to escape with nothing worse than holes burned in their clothes.

    Léon was also a loyal assistant a couple of years later in the great artistic enterprise of their childhood, which was Henri's toy theatre. It was made from a crate lined with coarse blue wrapping paper from the shop, and the parts were played by characters cut out from strip cartoons and glued onto strips of cardboard. Henri was director, stage manager, musician, scene designer and set painter. His greatest triumph was a piece that ended with the sensational eruption of Vesuvius, for which his father provided sulphur and saltpetre. The volcano went up in puffs of smoke and flame against a background of blue-paper waves edged with painted foam to represent the Bay of Naples: "The décor was signed Matisse, and the musical effects were provided by your violin," Léon wrote in what remains the only extant account of this remarkable premiere. "The price of the seats was within everybody's reach: a trouser button, and I believe our parents ended up mystified by the increasing scarcity of that sartorial accessory." Vesuvius erupted in May 1885. The event was reported in provincial papers all over Europe and reproduced in far more spectacular theatrical productions, but perhaps none more interesting. Already, as a boy of fifteen who had never set foot outside his own small corner of northeastern France, Matisse's best efforts were inspired by the light of the Mediterranean.

    The spectators who paid with trouser buttons presumably included Henri's eleven-year-old brother Auguste and Léon's twelve-year-old only sister Jeanne, perhaps the Matisses' cousin Edgard Mahieux from the hotel, possibly some of the director's school contemporaries. Henri's best friend at school was Gustave Taquet, a shrewd, expansive and entertaining grocer's son who looked forward (unlike his friend) to taking charge of his father's shop. The two would go on together to secondary school in St-Quentin, returning home in the holidays to share adolescent outings and escapades. Matisse's closest contacts as an adult in Bohain remained Gustave Taquet and a younger boy called Louis Joseph Guillaume, a weaver's son who eventually opened the town's first photographic business next door to Henri's parents on the rue du Château. Taquet and Guillaume slipped readily into the roles allotted to them, both achieving worldly success long before Henri did (or Léon, either, for that matter), and both living out their lives as pillars of the community in Bohain.

    Henri and Léon both left for Paris as soon as they could, and before that each found different ways of pushing at the edges of the tight, narrow, restrictive world into which neither fitted comfortably. Léon was born into a banking family. The Banque Vassaux had been one of many small banks springing up to service the industrial expansion of the 1860s, and like countless others, it fell into difficulties. Léon's father and uncle resigned as directors when he was a baby, and he himself grew up old beyond his years with a precocious sense of responsibility, reinforced by his mother's death when he was twelve. An uncle who was a doctor offered an escape route which Léon took by studying hard, doing brilliantly in his examinations, and enrolling at eighteen in the medical faculty of the Sorbonne.

    Henri meanwhile dreamed and dawdled through his school career. Constant rote learning was the rule in the three local schools he attended under teachers who lashed out freely with the cane or ruler. The daily routine consisted of tests, exercises, homework, and the punishments that followed automatically for faults or slips. Proud, stiff-necked and stubborn, none of the Matisses ever took kindly to this sort of treatment. Henri's father, Hippolyte Henri, had attended school in Le Cateau until the age of eighteen without apparently ever taking a public examination or achieving any mark in any subject except "poor" or "mediocre." A late developer who prospered only after he struck out on his own, he resolved to prevent his sons from repeating his own mistakes. Henri, no less resolute, responded with what had once been his father's strategy of passive resistance. The standoff between father and son, which eventually reached epic proportions, started with private music lessons, then as now thought to provide a flying start by parents anxious to reinforce their children's social credentials.

    Henri and Léon, who was highly musical, shared the same violin teacher, whom they both detested. M. Pechy was leader of the town band, a formidable figure ranking second only to the superintendent of police as he marched at the head of his musicians with his black baton and gold-braided officer's cap. He beat his mutinous pupils with his violin bow, and they retaliated by playing truant. When Père Pechy knocked on the Matisses' door, Henri would climb over the Vassauxs' party wall so that when his pupil failed to appear, Pechy went next door in search of Léon, who was also missing, both boys having by now prudently hopped back over the wall onto the Matisses' side. Léon always insisted that Henri was the more gifted of the two, and that if it hadn't been for Père Pechy, he could have become a great virtuoso violinist. Certainly this episode rankled with Matisse, who tried long and hard in later life to make up for the practice he had missed in his youth. His violin always remained close to his heart. He obliged his own reluctant son to practise many hours daily, explaining that he himself bitterly regretted having opposed his father on this and other fronts.

    As Matisse grew older, he came increasingly to understand and sympathise with a side of his father he had rebelled against with his whole being as a boy. In the last years of his life he looked with new eyes at his father's problems: the precariousness of his achievement, at any rate in the early years; the anxiety and labour involved in setting up any kind of enterprise, the constant effort required to keep it going. Hippolyte Henri, starting out with minimal capital and nothing like the Gérards' established family network to support him, had been confronted almost immediately by the catastrophic consequences of the German victory. The citizens of Bohain were obliged to pay over to the enemy almost 200,000 francs in reparations and requisitions, a staggering sum for a town of just under seven thousand inhabitants mostly living on subsistence wages (less than a hundred francs a month for a skilled workman). The town's manufacturing base came within a hairsbreadth of being wiped out, recovering only through grinding collective retrenchment and reconstruction.

    One of the regrets that nagged Matisse was that his father had never had the support he might have looked for from an eldest son. As a father in his turn, he understood only too well the nervous energy expended in efforts to correct and counteract anything that might leave a child exposed, vulnerable or unprepared for the harsh conditions of a future he would have to face alone. Already as a boy, he was riddled with conflicting impulses. He refused to please his father by taking violin lessons, but a few years later, as a student, he couldn't be parted from his fiddle. He dreamed of being a jockey, although he did not know how to ride a horse. Matisse learned to ride only after his father's death, in spite--or perhaps because--of the fact that Hippolyte Henri had loved horses, ending up at the height of his success with at least ten in his stables: mighty, gleaming dray horses, harnessed five abreast, to draw the great wagons loaded with his stock all over the department. Hippolyte Henri also kept a light barouche with a fast, fine-paced mount for his personal use, one of the few luxuries he allowed himself in a life of disciplined and dedicated toil.

    His sons were brought up as good Republicans and Roman Catholics according to the custom of their class and time. Baptised at seven days old before he left Le Cateau, Henri was confirmed with all the other children of his age in 1881 in the church of St-Martin in Bohain. Seventy years later he said he still used the Hail Marys and Paternosters of his childhood to calm his nerves, but for most of his life he looked back with distaste on his Catholic upbringing as part of the harsh authoritarian apparatus that had curbed and controlled his youth. He was sent as a small boy to the local primary school, transferring briefly when he was about ten years old to his father's old school, the College of Le Cateau. Henri attended as a day boy, living with his grandmother Gérard in the rue du Chêne Arnaud, a stay chiefly memorable by his own account for an injury he got by slipping on the grease and mud outside her house (the Cateau tanneries not only produced a stench as powerful as the beet refineries of Bohain but impregnated the streets around them with slithery, slimy animal fat, or tallow).

    Matisse said little of his schooling afterwards, save to mention his headmaster with a flash of unexpected warmth: "M. Francq, a grave but good man, with side whiskers." Joseph Francq had a good deal to be grave about in the early 1880s. Newly promoted to the post of head after twenty-six years in teaching, he was one of a staff of five (only one of whom had more than the most elementary qualifications) attempting to provide a classical education in a town which barely managed to produce even a single annual candidate capable of sitting the Baccalauréat examinations. His despairing predecessors forwarded regular complaints to the authorities about insufficient funding, dilapidated buildings, inadequate equipment and unsuitable or missing books. One of them, in charge when Hippolyte Henri was a pupil, blamed his staffing problems on the virtually universal drunkenness of the male population of Le Cateau.

    Drink was a greater scourge than the cholera epidemics that regularly swept densely packed industrial towns like Le Cateau before the installation of drainage and sanitation. Every street in every town and village in this part of Picardy or Flanders had at least one bar, often no more than a counter and a couple of barstools, run by a housewife trying to make ends meet. Hippolyte Henri's own parents had kept a bar on their retirement, and Anna's sister Sidonie ran another with her husband on the rue du Chêne Arnaud. The Matisses' employees at the Bohain seed-store started work at dawn with a nip of gin to help them face the day. Wives collected their husbands' pay packets at the end of the week, counting out just enough for the men to get blind drunk. Alcohol provided an essential truce for a people contending on a daily basis with overwork, sickness and malnutrition. Almost one fifth of the inhabitants of Bohain were epileptic by the 1890s, and 35 percent of possible army conscripts were turned down at twenty as alcoholics.

    Men, women and children in the textile mills worked up to twelve hours a day with a single fifteen-minute break. Labourers, often migrants who came by train each summer from across the Belgian border, crouched in long lines bent double, nose to ground, all day to weed the beet fields. Resentment simmered and flared throughout the 1880s. Workers protesting against the lowering of their meagre wages staged a strike in Le Cateau in December 1883 which erupted into a riot on New Year's Day, the day after Henri's fourteenth birthday. Strikers stormed the woollen factory installed in the old archbishop's palace (now the Matisse Museum), smashing the doors down, breaking windows and threatening to kill the managing director. Memories like these lay behind the images of physical violence that often startled Matisse's admirers later when he talked about his working methods. He once told the Hollywood film star Edward G. Robinson that the only thing that drove him to paint was the rising urge to strangle someone. "I've always worked like a drunken brute trying to kick the door down," he said, discussing plans for the chapel he designed at the end of his life in Vence on the Côte d'Azur.

    Matisse's brutal metaphors went back to the remorseless, mind-numbing, unending drudgery he had seen on all sides as a child. Weavers had feverish eyes, pale faces and gaunt, etiolated bodies from spending all the hours of daylight shut up in cramped and often humid spaces. Long after the neighbouring towns had switched to mechanisation, a high proportion of the men of Bohain kept their handlooms, working either at home or in back-street workshops crammed with anything from three or four to twenty times as many looms. There were half a dozen of these weavers' and embroiderers' workshops in and around the rue Peu d'Aise. "My cradle was rocked to the clicking rhythms of running shuttles. . . . Clickety-clack! . . . Clickety-clack!" wrote Emile Flamant, another painter born in Bohain in 1896. Matisse himself was just old enough to remember the vogue for Kashmir shawls which had brought Bohain its first taste of prosperity in the 1850s. "In the old days they used to make woven Indian shawls. It was a time when people still wore shawls on their backs, as in old Flemish paintings, decorated with palmettes and fringed edges," Matisse said, describing a simple weaver's dwelling like the one where he was born. "A peasant's house consisted of a single big room with a bed, a table in the middle and a loom in the corner, a Jacquard loom."

    It was Parisian high fashion that lay behind Bohain's astonishing economic turnaround after the defeat of 1871. By the time Henri was ten, all but a handful of the town's forty-two textile workshops had switched to furnishing or dress materials, working directly for the big Paris fashion houses that supplied modern department stores like the Cour Batave. This was the basis of the town's booming economy during Henri's childhood and adolescence, when the luxury textile trade exploded "like fireworks" in an unprecedented display of creativity and invention. Throughout the time he lived there, the weavers of Bohain were famous for the richness of their colours, for their imaginative daring and willingness to experiment. They worked to order for the top end of the market, supplying handwoven velvets, watered and figured silks, merinos, grenadines, featherlight cashmeres and fancy French tweeds (cheviottes fantaisies) for winter and, for summer, sheer silk gauzes, diaphanous tulles, voiles and foulades in a fantastic profusion of decorative patterns, weaves and finishes.

    Bohain had long produced silk-weavers, aristocrats of the trade, in whom the tradition of skilled workmanship--inherited from linen-weavers like Henri Matisse, the painter's great-grandfather--developed under pressure from new demand in the last quarter of the nineteenth century into a growing relish for change and innovation. The weaving of silk gauzes was an exacting discipline, "taught in Bohain much as they teach Latin and Greek elsewhere." Those who mastered it were highly sophisticated, resourceful and competitive, retaining an openness and flexibility unknown to machine operators turning out relatively coarse, mass-produced textiles for a wider public. Bohain's preeminence was rapidly acknowledged. "Picardy, thanks to Bohain, leads the whole of France, and indeed the rest of the world, in the fashion field," wrote a government inspector in 1897. "Its pioneering claims are born out by the prodigal variety, the inexhaustible originality and constant innovation of its products. . . . This production--so energetic, so alive with new ideas, so bold in conception--meets with an executant of exceptional ability in the Picard weaver."

    Bohain's weavers drew dignity and pride from knowing they had few rivals and no superiors. Their traditional independence fed a radical subversive streak: the weavers of Bohain and its neighbouring village of Fresnoy-le-Grand were regarded with mistrust by the new property-owning middle class as potentially dangerous egalitarians, if not outright revolutionaries. Their craving for another world--an escape from the material hardship and confinement of their lives--found its only practical outlet in the fierce aesthetic satisfaction they got from their luxury fabrics, some so intricate that even the best workman could weave no more than one and a half centimetres a day (five to six was the usual rate of progress). They worked with threads as fine as hairs, wound on tiny bobbins in an array of miniature roving shuttles, each supplying a separate colour nuance. Weavers vied with one another to produce ever more ambitious, subtler and more opulent effects, ranging from sumptuous brocades, enriched with pearls or gold and silver thread, to filmy shot silks and gauzes which took on the tone and texture of a watercolour. "Each shuttle. . . performs the function of a paintbrush which the weaver guides at will and almost as freely as the artist himself," wrote another contemporary, who was by no means the first to suggest that the ill-paid, illiterate peasant weavers of Picardy possessed an innate aesthetic sense of colour and design.

    Descended from and surrounded by these weavers, Matisse grew up familiar from infancy with the sound of clacking shuttles and the sight of his neighbours loading and plying coloured bobbins, hunched over the loom like a painter at his easel day in, day out, from dawn to dusk. Textiles remained ever afterwards essential to him as an artist. He loved their physical presence, surrounding himself with scraps and snippets of the most beautiful stuffs he could afford from his days as a poor art student in Paris. He painted them all his life as wall hangings, on screens, in cushions, carpets, curtains and the covers of the divans on which he posed his models of the 1930s in their flimsy harem pants, their silk sashes and jackets, their ruffled or embroidered blouses, sometimes in haute couture dresses made by Parisian designers from the sort of luxury materials still produced in those days for Chanel in Bohain.

    Throughout the single most critical phase of his career, in the decade before the First World War when he and others struggled to rescue painting from the dead hand of a debased classical tradition, textiles served him as a strategic ally. Flowered, spotted, striped or plain, billowing across the canvas or pinned flat to the picture plane, they became in Matisse's hands between 1905 and 1917 an increasingly disruptive force mobilised to subvert and destabilise the old oppressive laws of three-dimensional illusion. On a purely practical level, he resorted as a painter to old weavers' tricks like pinning a paper pattern to a half-finished canvas, or trying out a whole composition in different colourways. He stoutly defended the decorative, non-naturalistic element in painting, and he made luxury--in the old democratic weavers' definition, "something more precious than wealth, within everybody's reach"--a key concept in his personal system of aesthetics. In this, as in his unbudgeable determination, Matisse remained a true son of the weavers of Bohain, whose fabrics astonished contemporaries by their glowing colours, their sensuous refinement, their phenomenal lightness and lustre.

    In the sternly utilitarian and materialist society in which he grew up, there was little other nourishment available for a nascent visual imagination. Bohain had no museum, no local big house or art gallery, no paintings to speak of in its town hall or church. Even a modest proposal to found a library met stiff opposition before the municipal reading room was finally opened in 1872. The town council had its hands full in the 1870s and 1880s with plans to pave the streets, put in gaslights, and improve sanitation by filling in or covering over drains, stagnant ponds and open sewers. It was busy grappling with illiteracy (half the children of Bohain in 1868 could neither read nor write). It embodied its vision of the future in a gargantuan town hall, opened in 1884 with flags, bands, speeches and a five-course dinner (in fact, Bohain had already reached its high-water mark by 1884: economic changes in the twentieth century compounded by two more German wars meant that its population subsequently declined, and its industry went into reverse).

    The fine arts got their due in the shape of a small statue of the three Graces erected on the rue du Château. Bohain was run by a handful of bourgeois families, lawyers, tradesmen and small shopkeepers headed by the mayor and the Roman Catholic curé, who struggled to impose some sort of stability on an exploding population in what had been within living memory an inaccessible, in some ways still almost mediaeval country village. The ruling middle class may have been smug and ruthlessly conformist, but they were also confident, hopeful and pragmatic. For them the Third Republic, even more than the Second Empire before it, was an era of unparalleled expansion and achievement. They believed in Emile Zola's definition of progress: "going with the century, expressing the spirit of the century, which is a century of action and conquest, of effort in all directions." The bourgeois citizens of Bohain were themselves the small-town equivalent of the businessmen Zola portrayed in his "hymn to the modern age," Le Bonheur des dames, which celebrates the wholesale destruction and rebuilding of Paris under Baron Haussmann in the 1860s, symbolised by the launch of a great modern department store. The book's last chapter--in which the entire store is transformed by net curtains, drapery and streamers into a dazzling pristine white silk altarpiece for the grand White Sale--embodies everything for which the Cour Batave stood in the Matisse household during Henri's childhood.

    Hippolyte Henri was born in the same year as Zola, and reached Paris as a young man at roughly the same age. Zola said that his novel was partly inspired by young shop assistants flooding in from rural France to Paris, where they hoped to rise up through the ranks from shop-boy to department head, fired by the "ambition to find broader horizons than anything their fathers knew." For Hippolyte Henri, the years he spent packing, unpacking, shelving and delivering white goods for a great Paris store became a lifelong yardstick. He came home with the British shopkeeper's proud motto--Nothing but the best--which stamped his own life and his son's. In Bohain's close and sometimes stifling microclimate, the great adventure of his youth opened a window for the whole family on a wider world of opportunity and aspiration.

    Matisse said he had dreamed from his earliest years of the radiant light and colour he finally achieved in the stained-glass windows of the chapel at Vence in 1952. "It is the whole of me . . . everything that was best in me as a child." He told his grandson, who had been taken aback to find almost every conventional feature of a church interior missing from the chapel, that his whole life had been in some sense a flight. "I come from the North. You can't imagine how I hated those dark churches." One of the effects that pleased him most in the Vence chapel was a clear reflected blue of an intensity he said he had seen before only

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Table of Contents

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First Chapter

Chapter One

1869-1881: Bohain-en-Vermandois

Henri Matisse often compared his development as a painter to the growth of a seed. "It's like a plant that takes off once it is firmly rooted," he said, looking back at the end of his life: "the root presupposes everything else." He himself was rooted in northeastern France, on the edge of the great Flanders plain where his ancestors had lived for centuries before the convulsive social and industrial upheavals of the nineteenth century slowly prised them loose. His father's family were weavers. Henri Emile Benoît Matisse was born in a tiny, tumbledown weaver's cottage on the rue du Chêne Arnaud in the textile town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis at eight o'clock in the evening on the last night of the year, 31 December 1869. The house had two rooms, a beaten earth floor and a leaky roof. Matisse said long afterwards that rain fell through a hole above the bed in which he was born.

His parents, who worked in Paris, were paying a New Year visit to their hometown. They called their first child Henri after his father, following a family tradition that went back four generations. The first Henri Matisse had been a linen-weaver in the nearby village of Montay in 1789, when the French Revolution abruptly halved demand from the court for the fine linens of Cambrésis. This ancestor, Henri Joseph Matisse, married a tanner's daughter from Le Cateau and moved with his loom to the tanners' quarter outside the mediaeval town walls, settling round about 1800 on the place du Rejet at the top of the rue du Chêne Arnaud: a patch of low-lying wasteland heavily flooded each year when the winter rains washed liquid mud down from the high ground on one side to meet water rising up through the tanneries lining the banks of the river Selle on the other. Hardship and adversity bred strong wills and stubborn resistance in the Matisse family. Henri Joseph's son, Jean Baptiste Henri, abandoned the humble weaver's trade to become a factory foreman in one of the mechanised woollen mills beginning to spring up in the town in the 1850s. His son in turn would leave home and abandon textiles altogether.

This was Emile Hippolyte Henri Matisse, the painter's father, who found work in his twenties as a shop-boy in Paris. By January 1869, when he married Anna Hélonse Gérard, the daughter of another Cateau tanner, he had been promoted to trainee buyer in ladies' underwear. He worked for the Cour Batave on the brand-new boulevard Sébastopol, a highly fashionable store in a custom-built modern shopping complex specialising in lingerie, trousseaux, ladies' stockings, bodices, blouses, personal and household linen. This sort of job was a natural progression for the clever, ambitious son and grandson of weavers in a region that supplied the capital's apparently insatiable demand for novelties and fancy goods in the 1860s. Hippolyte Henri would take pride all his life in his thorough grounding at the Cour Batave, which served him well on regular buying trips to Paris long after he had moved back to set up his own business nearer home. It sharpened his eye for quality, confirmed his distaste for slack or shoddy performance, laid down the exacting standards by which he judged himself, his world, and especially his eldest son ever afterwards.

Anna Gérard, who had also gone up to Paris to work in a hat-shop, was twenty-four when she married Hippolyte Henri Matisse, who was four years older. Warmhearted, outgoing, capable and energetic, she was small and sturdily built with the fashionable figure of the period: full breasts and hips, narrow waist, neat ankles and elegant small feet. She had fair skin, broad cheekbones and a wide smile. "My mother had a face with generous features, the highly distinctive traits of French Flanders," said her son Henri, who spoke always with particular tenderness of the sensitivity and the innate generosity reflected in his mother's character as in her looks. Throughout the forty years of her marriage, she provided unwavering, rocklike support to her husband and her sons.

Excerpt of chapter one ends.

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