On the day in 1891 that the young Matisse left for art school in Paris, his worried father chased after the departing train, waving his fist and shouting, “You’ll starve.” Starve? Not Matisse. He would make a feast of his own imaginings, then invite the world. This fall it seemed as though virtually the entire world was vying for tickets to the hottest art exhibit of the year: the giant Matisse retrospective that occupied two floors at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Too bad that Matisse père couldn’t be there to see the delighted crowds confirm his son as the only artist of this century worthy to cross brushes with Picasso.
It’s a shame, too, that the anxious papa couldn’t attend the fall art auctions in Manhattan, where even in a sluggish market Matisse’s Harmony in Yellow sold for $14.5 million—a record for his work—just two nights after his Asia went for a cool $11 million.
But while it’s Matisse the painter who seizes the eye, it’s Matisse the paradox who captures the imagination. At first glance, this tweedy former law student, a squirrel in spectacles, looks too square for the bright, curvy paradise he created on canvas. To enter that place full of mythic dancers and ripe women in crazy-quilt rooms, he traded his gray flannel suit for a coat of many colors. But in life, Matisse would cling to the image of the sober middle-class householder. Picasso could play the bohemian rascal. Matisse preferred to be thought of as a sensualist in a starched shirt, sketching his nude models, then pausing to tighten his tie.
Eventually he loosened it. In his 40s, with his wife and two children stashed most of the time at home in a Paris suburb, Matisse set up a second headquarters for himself in the South of France. Amid the bright light and chiming colors of the Mediterranean coast, he built his own private Eden of art, flowers and pretty models. Some of them evidently became his lovers. One of them, a lithe Russian named Lydia Delectorskaya, would become his lifelong companion, even during periods when his wife was in residence. That meant trouble in paradise. There were angry scenes with Madame Matisse and, after World War II, a formal separation. He once moaned to an interviewer, “If people knew what Matisse, supposedly the painter of happiness, had gone through.”
But the guilty tumult of his life never ruffled the surface of his art or diminished his creative force. Even in his 70s, when he was mostly bedridden with cancer, Matisse made an artistic leap. Unable to withstand the physical strain of painting, he created explosive new works of vibrant cut-paper forms. It was as though the passions that had consumed his life had also burned away everything extraneous in the troublesome world, leaving behind just bare shapes like glowing bones in the ashes of a fire. And because he was Matisse, he gathered even those into one last feast.