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The Unknown Matisse: Man of the North: 1869-1908

(Matisse #1)

4.22  ·  Rating details ·  571 ratings  ·  27 reviews
Astonishing and essential, the biography that reclaimed Henri Matisse from history's slanders and restored his place in the canon of the 20th century's greatest artists

Before acclaimed biographer Hilary Spurling turned her attention to Henri Mattise, precious few facts were known about his life - and those few were distorted by inaccuracy, misunderstanding and glaring gaps
Paperback, 512 pages
Published April 27th 2000 by Penguin (first published October 27th 1998)
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Rob Woodard
Solid biography of the early life of this amazing painter. It gets the basic whos, whys, and wheres of his life down nicely, but is a little thin when it comes to delving into his art itself, both in regards to social meaning and technique, which is a major flaw. Still, it's worth reading for anyone interested in Matisse and probably would make a good starting point for someone with little to no knowledge of them man or his work. If it was possible I would have given this book 3 1/2 stars. ...more
September Dee
Dec 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A wonderful book, very rare to see this as a title. Understanding the creative genius behind one of the most loved artists is enjoyable. Well written and perfect for art lovers.
Nov 09, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Preliminary remarks, will be updated after some additional thought.

For me this was a slow read, partially because it is so dense in description of a multitude of family, friends, schoolmates, art dealers, gallery mates, places, related events and throughout the whole course difficult finances.

Also, with a great deal of travel and work created on vacation, then transported and ultimately hung in shows in other locations, there's an awful lot of information and detail to keep up with, just to di
May 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A wonderful writer. As someone who loves this painter, but usually doesn't read books about artists, this is a good place to start, I find. And I'll refer you to someone who's becoming one of my favorite book bloggers,
Sam Schulman
Dec 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Again, one of the rare biogrphies that makes you care for someone you never thought to care for - on a human level - before. It makes Matisse lovable, and you regret not having had him as a friend. What good this is I'm not sure - but it's uncommon enough to remark upon.
Jan 20, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Hilary Spurling's The Unknown Matisse is a detailed, biographical sketch of Henri Matisse's early life and an account of the events leading up to his embrace of Modernism and success as a painter. Spurling describes Henri's life primarily through daily contacts with family, friends and other members of the art circuit. The author begins by sketching the birth of Matisse and the major events surrounding it. The birth of Matisse coincided with the Franco-Prussian War, a time when the Germans march ...more
Manuel Antão
Aug 20, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020
If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

Uniqueness and Creativity: "The Unknown Matisse, 1869-1908" by Hilary Spurling

I think that Matisse’s paintings are wonderful because he enjoyed doing them and he put ideas and feelings into them. But I wonder about our experiences when we go an art gallery. Art goers come from different spheres of life. If I look at something and don't understand the deeper ideas within I can choose to shut up or I can comment at the level I can reach
Chris Walker
Jun 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The parents of creative offspring should read this book to reconcile themselves to the years of support they have in front of them if Henri Matisse's early career is anything to go by - and the overwhelming importance of a supportive family (especially wife) and friends in the artist's life. This well researched book, which is festooned with reference numbers on every page but fortunately for the reader not with footnotes, is quite engrossing. A surprise for me was the major influence of the Aus ...more
May 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
I loved this. Writing a biography of an artist must be a formidable task: how do you satisfy artists as well as readers who are novices? I'm a novice, and it seemed to me that the actual art was well-explained. The discussion of Matisse's artistic influences and the impact of his art is never allowed to overtake the discussion of the man.

Nick Hornby mentioned this in one of his collections of essays, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt; The Unknown Matisse was one of the books he'd heard great things abo
Dec 06, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Along with Quentin Bell's biography of Virginia Woolf, this and Spurling's second volume, 'Matisse the Master,' are masterpieces of the life writer's art. From the artist's early days in the poor and dim north of France to his last days in the light-filled south, there's enough detail here to sink a lesser biographical vessel. There's so much that we didn't know before---Spurling's scholarship is exhaustive--- but it's all so well told. This is not the Matisse that introductory art history cours ...more
A bit of a chore for the first several hundred pages. Not sure why. It is certainly a solid piece of biography. At any rate, the last two hundred pages were more of a pleasure to read, and I learned a great deal from all of it. I hadn't known anything about Matisse's childhood in northern France near Flanders in a countryside that was not bucolic, but harsh and increasingly industrialized. The two major industries there were sugar beet farming and the dying and weaving of cloth (which influenced ...more
Dec 21, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a well-researched biography of Matisse in his early years. I wouldn't recommend it if you are not a huge fan of art and Matisse in particular, but if you're looking to read about everything that ever happened to the artist up to 1908, this is the book for you. There is great attention to detail here and plenty of photographs and illustrations as befits a book about an artist, so Matisse fans, enjoy! ...more
This is a brilliant analysis of Henri Matisse's stubborn Northern character, his rebellion against his father, his rebellion against conformism, and his struggle to transform modern art into a glittering world of light and colour.

This biography is well-written and interesting. However, it's very long and detailed.
Dec 03, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a year to catch up. The title sat on my shelf for almost nine years; it came out at the time I gave up (for a time, it turns out) one of my greatest interests.

Erudite, sensitive, breaking a lot of new ground -- well. That's pretty good, I think. The dedication, alone, deserves a look.
F.J. Commelin
Feb 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art
Well written Hillary spurling takes you on the journey that is matisse's life.
Read also part two.
The first volume of The Unknown Matisse (1869-1908) covers Henri Matisse’s early life, from his childhood to his first commercial and public successes. Henri grew up in Bohain, close to the Belgian border, north east from Paris, to parents running a seed store. This area of France in the late 19th century experienced major upheavals both culturally and economically and experienced invasions by Prussian forces among others. The effects were harsh life conditions and consequently hardened people t ...more
Bonnie Church
Apr 05, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art, bio, history
Pithy read. Lots of names dropped, french towns, cities and terms. That can slow down the reading pace a bit...You gotta love Matisse to love this book. If you do, you will.
Oct 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art-history
And I thought Van Gogh was a tortured soul! After reading Hilary Spurling’s book (the first of two) about Henri Matisse I’ve since realized it’s a common theme with great artists. The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Matisse: The Early Years, 1869 - 1908 is terrific. It’s meticulously researched with several colored images of Matisse’s works which enhance the reading experience greatly. Reading of Matisse’s struggles with colour, with form, with finding out how to break the rules—you can see it all un ...more
Jan 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an amazing biography on an artist I have known very little of. It has opened my mind to an appreciation for the faux movement and the life and influences of an incredible and epic artist. Although the level of detail in the book is phenomenal at some points it is easy to get lost in trying to keep all the characters straight and this detracts from the continuity of the story even though it is a biography. None the less the book has changed my life as an artist far more than I ever expect ...more
Aug 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a magnificent biography of my favorite artist Henri Matisse. It is the first book of a two-volume set. It covers the years from his birth in 1869 to 1909 when Matisse turned Forty. Matisse died in 1954.

In discussing his formative years, you learn so much about the man, his creations, the world he inhabited and the young artists he inspired like Picasso.

I was lucky enough to see the blockbuster Matisse exhibit in NYC held at MoMa in 1992. I remember people lined up around the block to w
Nov 19, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art, france
Although I like his work (his later work, it turns out), and I've been to Nice and have seen where he lived and been to the Matisse Museum devoted to his work in Cimiez, it turns out I knew nothing about him. This book has fixed that, at least in part. Because it is only part of the story, taking you up to 1908, when he was 39 and just becoming successful. Since he lived to be 85, there is a second volume that needs to be read. ...more
Steven Wise
Apr 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In depth biography. The book begins with his parents and ends at the age 40. Author provides detailed accounts of all the important influences in his life: family, art, lovers, friends, dealers, and collectors.
Nov 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fabulous!! (still working on the second volume which is equally excellent.) Stupendous scholarship.
Jon  Tanner
Nov 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellently researched. Possibly more than you wanted to know about Matisse, but a fine biography.
Harry Rutherford
Aug 06, 2008 rated it really liked it
The Unknown Matisse is the first of two volumes, taking our hero from 1869-1908. I actually bought it some time ago on Jee Leong’s recommendation, but it has taken me some time to finish, mainly I think because the simple physical size of it makes it slightly awkward to read in bed. It’s not that huge, but it’s quite a fat volume and printed on large format paper to make space for some colour reproductions of the work. Which are, of course, lovely and very welcome.

It’s fascinating to read about
Feb 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, art, france
This was a well researched biography of the early years of Henri Matisse, one of the masters of twentieth century art. Having always loved his paintings because of the vibrant use of color, it was interesting to see as a young boy growing up in a northern France textile town, he was drawn even then to the different uses of colors and textures in the textiles. Although Matisse struggled as a "starving artist" for a lot of years in his early days in Paris in the art community, his wife and three c ...more
One of my "heavy" summer reads - well worth it! Learned so much about Matisse - we take him too much for granted - or that process of creation. It looks so easy superficially, but deep down there's an amazing history.

I've always liked Matisse's work, but truly never had any idea about his early years. Obviously, I enjoyed the read.
rated it really liked it
Dec 28, 2015
Ayad Akhtar
rated it it was amazing
Jul 22, 2011
Antonia Malvino
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May 21, 2018
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Hilary Spurling, CBE, FRSL (born 1940) is a British writer, known as a journalist and biographer. She won the Whitbread Prize for the second volume of her biography of Henri Matisse in January 2006. Burying The Bones: Pearl Buck in China was published in March 2010.
She is married to playwright John Spurling, and has three children (Amy, Nathaniel and Gilbert) and two grandchildren.

Other books in the series

Matisse (3 books)
  • Matisse the Master: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954
  • Matisse: The Life

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