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Bookmarks Issue: 
20-Jan-Feb-2006
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A Life of Henri Matisse, The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954

A-MatisseMasterWith Matisse the Master, Spurling completes her two-part biography of the great modernist artist, who feared his work would not outlive him but who has become one of the world’s most beloved and popularly acclaimed 20th-century artists. Picking up where she left off in The Unknown Matisse (1998), Spurling describes in exquisite detail the second half of Matisse’s 85-year life. The author explores his seemingly idyllic but turbulent family life, including the dissolution of his marriage to his long-suffering wife Amélie—whom he had told, "I shall always love painting more"—and his dependence on his daughter, Marguerite. Dogged by ill health and insecurities, Matisse spent his last years creating his masterpiece, the interior of the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence.
Knopf. 512 pages. $40. ISBN: 0679434291

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Spurling writes with visual and intuitive acuity about the paintings, but instead of lying flat on her pages, they become active and often painful happenings along the journey." Richard Eder

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"This biography presents much more than a glimpse behind the scenes. It discloses a ruthlessly dedicated career, a massive determination, and, by giving flesh to the hidden shadows of the man, it provokes a stimulatingly fresh look at his art." Christopher Andreae

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"Spurling writes with a welcome mix of appropriate admiration and cool dispassion; her sentences are models of clarity and compression. But finally what makes her book so valuable is the information it provides on the paintings themselves." Francine Prose

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Just as Matisse transformed lithe models, narrow hotel rooms, swarming plants and flowers, and hand-colored papers into beguiling works of art, Spurling breathes life into what many had assumed was a humdrum story." Phyllis Tuchman

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Spurling made it clear at the outset of the first volume that hers was ‘not a work of art history’ and that she had ‘constructed it along lines laid down by its subject.’ Accordingly, she rarely steps back from Matisse’s life events to provide historical or cultural context. … Despite these limitations, Spurling’s work is a masterpiece of research." Katrin Schultheiss

Rocky Mountain News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[H]er research and understanding of an artist’s life result in a book that manages to be sensitive and thorough and, occasionally, tart. Spurling … mines a wealth of material to place Matisse’s work in the context of the time." Mary Voelz Chandler

Critical Summary

Spurling devoted two volumes and more than 1,000 pages to her biography of Henri Matisse, and it is clear that she fell in love with the great artist by the time she had finished. Critics labeled Matisse the Master and its predecessor a monumental achievement worthy of its subject, and they noted that the second volume could easily stand on its own. Extensively researched and lovingly written, Spurling brings both the artist and his work to life, even for those already familiar with Matisse. If any criticism can be made about Spurling’s book, it is that she approaches her subject too closely and is too quick to remove his life and work from their historical context.

Another Artist Biography

De Kooning An American Master | Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (2004): 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2005. Award Star 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography. Stevens and Swan, established art critics, spent a decade researching and writing their hefty biography of the legendary abstract painter, Willem de Kooning.