Compared with Picasso, Matisse is not copiously written about or studied. The necessary Matisse bookshelf is a slender one. There is Alfred H. Barr's path-finding Matisse, His Art and His Public , which is nearly half a century old, and Jack Flam's lucid and provocative critical essay Matisse: The Man and his Art , published in 1986. The best overall survey of his art, as much on the basis of its illustrations as of its text, is Pierre Schneider's massive 1984 volume, Matisse . To these one must add the two great exhibition catalogues: John Elderfield's for New York's Museum of Modern Art's full-scale retrospective of 1992-3 and the Paris Beaubourg Exhibition of 1993, which so memorably covered only the years 1904-17. All of these contain many gems and, simply because of the hundreds of colour reproductions, Schneider's book is an essential adjunct to any new study of the artist.
What has been so long awaited, a serious and full biographical study, has - at least partially - finally arrived. If that sounds grudging, it is not meant to; it is merely factual, in that Hilary Spurling's book begins with Matisse's birth in 1869 and ends after less than half his life, with the artist only 39 years old.
Perhaps - to hurl vast, but possibly valueless generalisations around - it is because France is a nation of artists and England a country of biographers that the French are not, by a very long way, masters of their own biographical fates. The profession of "biographer" is not granted in France the quasi-reverence with which it is habitually greeted here. It is surely significant that sometimes the French have to put up with anglophone versions of the lives of their greatest cultural figures. Recently Graham Robb's Balzac and Victor Hugo made a considerable impact; and if the French want to know about Proust, they have to turn to George Painter, and for Berlioz, the French-sounding, but actually Franco-American, Jacques Barzun has given way to our own David Cairns, whose long-awaited second volume will appear next year. Whether Picasso is a Spaniard, a Catalan or a Frenchman by adoption is a moot point. What is quite unambiguous is that his definitive biographer, among a plethora - if not a miasma - of art-historical monographs, is the Englishman John Richardson, who, at least implicitly, defines Picasso's nationality in his advance encomium for Spurling's life of Matisse by hailing her subject as the greatest French painter of this century.
In that great divide across the Channel, the gulf, as the Matisse bookshelf perhaps makes clear, is as much between critics and biographers as between national tastes in reading matter and styles. Significantly also, the critical artillery is heavily weighted towards academe, whereas in the world of biography, academe is a seed-bed rather than a nursery. Some 40 years of publishing and reviewing biographies has made it abundantly clear to me that the best biographers are all taught, frequently brilliantly, by academics but, once they have their three or four years' training by professors, readers and lecturers, they nearly all make their biographical careers without benefit of a learned institution. Whatever the Bradbury/ Lodge type political manoeuvring, academe is a collegial business, while biography is in essence a solitary vice, in which whole days can be spent alone in an archive to come up with a single, invaluable, but still essentially arcane footnote.
But to any student of Matisse, it is precisely those notes, the quotations, the parentheses, that illuminate the man and the climate that formed his personality and his art; the wise reader, even of Spurling's magisterial work, will also indulge in the luxury of dipping again into the other books, particularly Schneider and Barr. The latter gives one a wonderful foil to the almost permanent torrent of disapproval, opprobrium and contempt heaped upon Matisse; a level of vituperation that makes one cringe as one reads Spurling's often heart-breaking pages but, in the history of modernity in painting, theatre or literature, it seems desperately inevitable. Barr quotes an 1896 letter from Camille Pissarro (a painter who at least behaved generously towards the young Matisse) to his son: "All the painters worth anything, Puvis, Degas, Renoir, Monet and your humble servant, unanimously term hideous the exhibition held at Durand-Ruel's of the symbolist named Bonnard I". And Bonnard, after all, was positively academic compared to that revolutionary firebrand Henri Matisse.
When reading Spurling, it is also helpful if one can have Schneider to hand, so that one can look occasionally at colour reproductions of some of his early works, which Spurling, within the confines of a biography rather than an art monograph, has no space to illustrate. There are glorious paintings such as Rocks at Belle-île of 1896, Mme Matisse with Jean in a Cradle of 1899 and Vase of Flowers of 1900, which already clearly show that by the turn of the century this giant of modernism was not only perfectly visible but also quite untameable.
Schneider approvingly quotes Gustave Moreau's remark to his pupils, of whom Matisse was the most notable: "I'm the bridge over which some of you will pass".
One of the principal joys of Spurling's method is what one might term its non-interruptive discursiveness. The book's nearly half a thousand pages are full of passages, sometimes quite long, about other artists, such as Matisse's lifelong friend and one-time companion in poverty, Albert Marquet, or Paul Signac, the founder and the principal theorist of Divisionism (the successor to pointillisme ) and briefly Matisse's mentor. Other notable sketches include Andre Derain, another battling artist of the period, the sculptor Aristide Maillol and, above all, Moreau himself, a highly original and significant painter who was one of the few officially favoured artists to see genius in Matisse - even though he clearly feared what he saw. Without ever holding up the narrative, the author paints brilliant, sharply etched portraits of these other considerable figures in such a way that you visualise them, empathise with them and, above all, always see Matisse plain through their eyes as well as those of the omniscient narrator. This is biographical and literary skill of a high order.
So often the word "unknown" in conjunction with the name of the biographer's subject is a catchpenny title, unworthy of note. Yet it is painfully appropriate here. Insofar as Matisse has an image outside his art, it is of a solid haut bourgeois , a bit wild in his youth, but always successful and, above all, comfortable. As Spurling makes evident, his early life and struggles come straight out of Henri Murger's Scènes de la vie de Bohème ; two friends sharing a single pair of respectable trousers and all the pretty girls working in hat shops - including Camille Joblaud, Matisse's mistress and mother of his first child.
But the squalor was no operatic joke. Not since the young Berlioz has any French genius endured such grinding poverty, lack of support and cold indifference to the talent exploding into ever-new forms.
Born to a solid family of tradesmen and weavers in the cold northern, Flemish region of France, the only encouragement Matisse had as an artist was a paintbox bought him by his mother, when he was ill in hospital and desperate to relieve his boredom. To be an artist was so far from being a proper vocation as to be considered, in his home town of Bohain, a form of social disgrace. While his mother doted, his cold and distant father never withheld his disapproval. Matisse senior was not actually a bad man; simply a prisoner of the forbidding, puritanical world that made him. Even he could not help the catastrophe that closed his brother-in-law's margarine business and forced him to cut off Henri's minute allowance; any more than Matisse's wife, most sensitively portrayed by Spurling, could help her parents' innocent involvement in the colossal Humbert fraud, which made the activities of Clarence Hatry or Robert Maxwell seem like petty defalcations. Nonetheless, the effect of a financial scandal so vast and so entrenched in the very highest places that it nearly brought down the government was so devastating for the peripherally involved, but utterly blameless Matisse family that Henri, close to a complete nervous breakdown, was ordered to bed by his doctor.
The poverty that Matisse endured was akin to that of Emile Zola and Paul Cézanne when, as students, they brought a bottle of olive oil back from Aix-en-Provence to eat with bread. Yet for all the misery there was joy; in the discovery of Belle-kle in Brittany; in the first move to the warmth of the south of France in St Tropez and then the Catalan port of Collioure, where Mediterranean light had its beneficent impact on his work.
There was the birth of much-loved children, the short honeymoon in London to admire Turner, the long stay in Corsica, the key voyage to Algeria, the formation of long-term supportive and loyal friendships with fellow artists and sufferers from lack of money and, above all, lack of encouragement. Despite this terrible absence of encouragement, Matisse always flourished creatively if not financially as an artist and rarely lost his optimism. He always maintained a certain hard-headed business sense, even if he felt, not unreasonably, that those few dealers who actually bought from him were exploiting him.
How can one forget the spectacle of the totally broke Matisse haggling for months with that wonderful dealer Ambroise Vollard who, in May 1899, sold Matisse Cézanne's masterpiece Three Bathers for Fr1,500, while buying twelve paintings from Matisse for a total of Fr1,000? Matisse worshipped Cézanne and never - no matter how close to bankruptcy - parted with that picture.
Happily for the reader, this is not simply, or even mainly, a tale of virtue being ill-treated. There must be in any great artistic career just a few hand-maidens to genius, and there were just enough for Matisse not only to survive with his integrity, as well as his sanity, intact, but also, by the close of the book to have begun, if not to be actually financially comfortable, at least to be above the breadline.
The Stein family were a godsend, partly because they bought his pictures, partly because they exhibited them in their apartments, which were always crowded with other potential buyers. The days of selling three unsigned pictures for Fr5 and then charging Fr300 each to sign them many years later were over. (Yet as late as 1904 he sold a copy he had made as an apprentice work of Raphael's Balthazar Castigilioni .) While Gertrude Stein remains a preposterous figure, her brother Leo was a man of quite exceptional taste who, in 18 crucial months, bought three of Matisse's most revolutionary pictures: Woman in a Hat (1905), Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra (1907) and Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905-6), each of which had created a scandal when first exhibited. Sadly the relationship with Leo Stein deteriorated when Matisse made it clear that he did not enjoy being lectured on art by Leo in the Uffizi in Florence; Stein thereafter never bought another picture from him.
On the other hand, Matisse met Picasso for the first time in the Stein salon. Both were affected profoundly by the two Congolese statues Matisse bought at that time but, alas, among artists it is not always imitation but rivalry that is the sincerest form of flattery. As John Richardson's recent second volume of his Picasso biography made clear, Picasso was much sustained by his bande of cronies, hangers-on and other less salubrious folk.
Spurling, I think rightly, points out that the bande, or gang, was hostile to Matisse, mocking him in public. Picasso himself was seriously disturbed by Matisse, particularly by the three Stein-acquired chefs d'oeuvres and more or less locked himself away to concentrate on one huge canvas, possibly the most influential single painting of the period, which he did not show publicly until nearly ten years later, as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, when Leo Stein, who was not infallible, did not like it, and Matisse was both puzzled and shocked by it. Matisse was, however, a man of generous spirit and brought his new and most significant patron, the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin, to Picasso's studio to tempt him with Les Demoiselles as early as 1908. Shchukin was appalled but subsequently became one of Picasso's few dependable collectors.
It is impossible in writing about Matisse to avoid Picasso, and Spurling provides a masterly summation of their relationship: "Forty years later, looking back companionably with Picasso over their parallel careers, Matisse would compare his own slow process of assimilation with the enviable speed of Picasso's lightning raids. Matisse insisted that, whereas all ways were open to Picasso (who protested that he had fought against this facility all his life), for him there had only ever been one possible path. The polarity between the two, defined and fostered by the Steins, bred a rivalry that proved one of the richest and most productive in the history of Western Art. Each pursued a goal that was the opposite of the other's. Matisse, hounded all his life by the fear of rejection and exposure, sought peace and stability above all in his work. Picasso, surrounded from earliest years by admiration and approval, taught the world to speak a new plastic language based on disruption and disintegration. On a human level, Matisse longed for a sobriety at the furthest extreme from his detractors' taunts of clown and charlatan. Clowning, initially, adopted as a protective measure, became Picasso's second nature."
Above all Spurling's is a warm, as well as a beautifully written book. To adapt a great French saying, "tout comprendre, c'est tout aimer". One can only hope that her love affair with Matisse will enable her to produce the second volume as soon as possible.
Tom Rosenthal is chairman, Institute of Contemporary Arts.
The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse, Volume One 1869-1908
Author - Hilary Spurling
ISBN - 0 241 13340 8
Publisher - Hamish Hamilton
Price - £25.00
Pages - 480