Cover image for Matisse : father & son
Matisse : father & son
Russell, John, 1919-2008.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Harry N. Abrams, 1999.
Physical Description:
415 pages, 48 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm
General Note:
"The story of Pierre Matisse, his father, Henri Matisse, his gallery in New York, and the artists that he introduced to America-- among them, Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti, Balthus, and Jean Dubuffet. Based on unpublished correspondence."
Reading Level:
1030 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
N8660.M28 R87 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The relationship between the great Post-Impressionist artist Henri Matisse and his son, influential art dealer Pierre Matisse, is at the heart of this deftly revealing and moving biography. 96 illustrations, 48 in full color.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

It may surprise readers that Russell has focused this double biography not on the famous father, the artist Henri, but on the much less well known son, the art dealer Pierre. By mining a cache of unpublished letters, Russell explodes the myth that Henri refused to support his son's career choice. In three decades of revealing letters, we see Pierre's close collaboration with his father, from the opening of his New York gallery in 1931 until Henri's death in 1954. But Pierre was hardly his father's puppet, and Russell restores to the son the credit due to a pioneer who vastly enlarged America's aesthetic horizons by exhibiting the works of previously unknown artists, such as Miroand Giacometti. But even as he allied himself with avant-garde painters and sculptors, Pierre distanced himself from the new breed of profiteering dealers who rose to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. This book will come as a long-overdue acknowledgement of the importance of an inspired dealer in giving artistic beauty its public life. --Bryce Christensen

Publisher's Weekly Review

When Henri Matisse's wife, Am‚lie, permanently walked out on him in 1939 in a jealous rage over Lydia Delectorskaya, his beautiful young model (and secretary and live-in nurse), the great French painter poured out his pain and his grievances only in his correspondence with his second son, New York art dealer Pierre Matisse (1900-1989). In a captivating dual portrait, Russell, former chief art critic for the New York Times, draws on thousands of unpublished letters in the Pierre Matisse archive to illuminate an intense, difficult father-son dyad, as well as the pioneering gallery owner's tumultuous relations with his artists. Proud, reserved Pierre Matisse made the work of Mir¢, Giacometti and Dubuffet part of the cultural landscape of the United States; he gave Balthus his first one-man show in New York in 1938; he helped develop Americans' taste for Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, Bonnard, de Chirico, Tanguy, Utrillo, Rouault and Calder. And despite Matisse pŠre's detestation of his son's chosen profession, and the legend that he refused to help it along, Russell shows that the painter gave his son shrewd business advice. The famous father was morbidly sensitive to every nuance, real or imagined, in his son's letters, but he also proffered fatherly counsel and comfort during family crises, such as Pierre's 1949 breakup with his second wife, and marriage to 25-year-old Patricia Echaurren, the fiery daughter of Chilean-born surrealist Matta. Furthermore, this dazzlingly illustrated biography offhandedly provides a roadmap of the evolution of Modernist art simply by charting the artists who wander into the frame and their interactions with the likes of Sartre, Rilke, Andr‚ Breton and Walter Gropius. Doubleday Reader's Subscription main selection. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Henri Matisse was an avid letter writer, and his correspondence with his son, Pierre, is the basis of Russell's narrative. The Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York was until the late 1980s a discreet, discriminating bastion of primarily European modern art. Through decades of letters and Pierre's correspondence with some of the artists he represented, including Dubuffet and Mir¢, we see the father-son and artist-dealer relationship firsthand. The real interest here, however, is Henri Matisse and his art. He is compelling in his own words as a father who wants to keep his family intact through a rancorous divorce, the occupation of Paris, the capture of his daughter Marguerite, life as a French resister, and later ill health. Pierre Matisse emerges as a good son who looks after everything just as his father instructs. Amusing morsels of gossip make the book worth reading; there is enough material here for several volumes. A friend of Pierre for many years, former New York Times chief art critic Russell has made an admirable first rendering of these newly available archives.ÄEllen Bates, New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Russell (b. 1919) is widely known for his lifetime of achievement as former chief art critic for The New York Times. With more new and original art historical research on modernism, Russell sensibly interprets and narrates many of the stories contained in the mass of correspondence carefully kept by Pierre Matisse (1900-89). Well known as the youngest son of Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Pierre was a New York art dealer and friend of the author. Thus Russell had exclusive access to what is now known as the Pierre Matisse Archives in the Pierpont Morgan Library. In the acknowledgments Russell writes, "It soon became clear that this could not be a book of Selected Letters, numbered, footnoted and cautiously trimmed . . . Narrative, not tabulation, was what these letters needed." The volume is a gold mine of Pierre's long career and the masterworks that he handled. The narrative moves easily through the professional and private lives of Henri and son Pierre, his father's closest confidant. The Archives also include much on the European artists Matisse represented in New York, including Miro, Alberto Giacometti, Balthus, Dubuffet, and Chagall. As Russell says, "This book is both a professional history and a family history. The two cannot be disentangled, and it is difficult to say which is which is the more absorbing." Recommended for large and specialized collections. Graduate students through professionals. M. Hamel-Schwulst; Towson University



Chapter One A Checkered Childhood, 1900-1920 Pierre Matisse was born in Bohain-en-Vermandois, in the flatlands of northern France and not far from Valenciennes, on June 13, 1900. The second son of Henri Matisse and his wife, Amélie Parayre, he had an older brother, Jean, born in 1899, and a half-sister, Marguerite, born in 1894.     This may sound like a traditional family structure -- well-balanced, well-paced, and potentially close-knit. But Pierre's was not a conventional childhood. For several years, his parents were too poor to keep their children together. The infant Pierre was cared for by his grandmother in Bohain, or by a wet nurse in the neighboring town of Busigny, while his father and mother lived and worked in Paris. When he was not quite three years old, he had bronchial pneumonia and nearly died of it. In 1902 and 1903, misfortunes not of their own making befell his mother's parents and made their name notorious throughout France. When Henri Matisse and his family retreated to Bohain, they were met with a universal obloquy.     As to Pierre's relations with his father, there is an accepted legend, most of which will be challenged in this book. But it is important to know that Pierre Matisse was not simply a Matisse. By way of his mother, he was also a Parayre. To that extent, he had in his early years the equivalent of a dual citizenship.     The Parayres came from a little town called Beauzelle, near Toulouse, where their father had been a schoolteacher. Not everyone found Beauzelle fascinating -- Henri Matisse's son-in-law, Georges Duthuit, once described it as "all sky and stagnation" -- but the Parayres were remarkable people.     They had fine looks -- their women were said to have "the look of Spanish queens" -- and they believed that they could bring about a better France. Every one of them, in their different ways, set about it as soon as they could. Pierre's future aunt, Berthe Parayre (1876-1945), was to be a distinguished pioneer in the field of women's education in France. She was also a tender and a reassuring presence for Pierre when he was very young. Amélie Matisse's father, Armand Parayre (1844-1922), was a man of darting and often dazzling intelligence. Initially as an inspired primary-school teacher, and later as the editor and managing director of an activist Republican newspaper called the Avenir de Seine et Marne , he came to the notice of many an important political figure.     Among them were Georges Clemenceau, the greatest French statesman of the day, and the young socialist député, Marcel Sembat, who was to be an important patron of Henri Matisse at a time when he badly needed one. Henri Matisse's father- and mother-in-law, Armand and Catherine Parayre, were models of open-mindedness and absolute trust. As a son-in-law, and in worldly terms, Henri Matisse had nothing to recommend him. At the time of his marriage, he was a failed painter who had no money of his own. He was also what would now be called the single father of his daughter, Marguerite, although he had formally acknowledged his responsibilities towards her in 1897. There was no indication that he would ever be able to support a family. But Armand and Catherine Parayre did not for a moment hesitate to make him welcome.     The Parayres operated at that time within a social, intellectual, and political context of which Henri Matisse had had no previous experience. They stood for free thinking, for the separation of church and state, and for the secularization of the French educational system. Monarchists, Bonapartists, and reactionaries of every kind were to be shown the door, and a free, equal, and fraternal society would come into being. For many years the Parayres had been friendly with Senator Humbert, a veteran of French politics who was the self-styled grand seigneur of Beauzelle and later became the French Minister of Justice.     It so happened that Armand Parayre had taught Frédéric Humbert, the senator's son, when he was in school in Beauzelle. It also happened that Catherine Parayre had been on intimate terms in childhood with Frédéric's future wife, who was born Thérèse Daubignac. (Frédéric's wedding in Beauzelle in 1878 had been the single most spectacular event in the town's history.) Eventually, Armand and Catherine Parayre became respectively the confidential factotum of and (hardly less important) the social secretary of Senator Humbert's son Frédéric and his flamboyant wife. Their roles may not sound very important, and (fortunately for them) they knew very little of their employer's activities. But they were nonetheless at the epicenter of a certain Paris. The Humberts had ramified and often mysterious financial activities, into which many of the most prominent people in France had become involved, often in ways that they hoped would never be known. There were also thousands of small investors all over France who had put their trust in the Humberts.     The Matisses of Bohain and the Parayres of Beauzelle had outwardly nothing in common, and there was no reason why Henri Matisse and Amélie Parayre should ever have met. But in October 1897 Henri Matisse went to a wedding in Paris and happened to sit next to Amélie at the uproarious banquet that followed. Henri Matisse at that time was not yet the professorial figure of legend. He was known as a prankster, as a ribald and anti-clerical songster, and as someone who had once broken up a café concert performance just for the hell of it.     Amélie was then twenty-five years old. There was no banal flirtation between them, even when the wine flowed, but each recognized the other as true metal, and when they got up from the table she held out her hand to Henri Matisse in a way that he never forgot. Nor was Amélie deterred by the downturn in his affairs. When he told her that he already had a daughter, she said, "Don't worry about that." She saw in him what she most wanted as a lifetime's companion -- someone who would always go his own way, regardless of what others might think of it.     Hers was a family in which unpopular causes were often espoused. She was an archetypal straight arrow, and it moved her deeply when Henri Matisse said to her, "Mademoiselle, I love you dearly, but I shall always love painting more." As for Henri's daughter, Marguerite, Amélie saw to it that she was loved, cherished, and cared for as an integral member of their family.     The Parayre connection was very much to the fore in the wedding ceremony, which was held in January 1898 in a fashionable church in Paris -- Saint-Honoré-d'Eylau. Amélie's dress came from the great couturier Worth (doubtless as a present from Madame Humbert). Amélie's witnesses were high officers of state. Henri's witnesses were good men and true, but they were not there for show.     If Pierre in his first years had few of the comforts, either moral or material, of a settled family life, it was because it was in Paris, if anywhere, that Henri Matisse's career would take off. To return to Bohain would signal an ignominious defeat.     If he was spared that defeat, it was largely because of the Parayres. Amélie's Aunt Noélie and two of her brothers ran a successful women's shop called the Grande Maison des Modes. Before her marriage, Amélie had shown a gift for designing, making, and modeling hats for a fashionable clientele. In June 1899 she found a partner and opened a shop of her own on the rue de Châteaudun. This allowed Henri and herself to live, with Marguerite, in a tiny two-room apartment on the same street.     Armand and Catherine Parayre at this time had put their whole energies at the service of Frédéric and Thérèse Humbert. Not only had Armand entrusted the Humberts with his private fortune, such as it was, but he had refused to accept a salary for his services. It was believed all over Paris that Thérèse Humbert would one day come into a gigantic amount of money, and Armand Parayre thought it an honor to serve Frédéric, whose election to the French Parliament he had done much to bring about in 1894.      His confidence was widely echoed. Investors would pour money into any scheme that the Humberts promoted. Jewelers were delighted to give Madame Humbert unlimited credit. Private loans, no matter how large, were rarely refused. Public figures by the dozen were drawn into the Humberts' orbit and never got out of it. Armand and Catherine Parayre virtually lived with the Humberts, whether in Paris or in the country near Fontainebleau. The Humberts could ask anyone they liked to their table, and very few of them refused. Nor did it escape their guests that the Humberts lived like royalty.     All this was a long way away from the high-minded brainstorming sessions at Beauzelle, but it never seems to have occurred to Armand Parayre that there might be something overblown, not to say putrid, about the Humberts and their festivities. If the chief of police came to dinner, and the leader of the Paris bar, and if the president of France and the prime minister had been there the week before, who could imagine that it was all a fraudulent charade? Certainly not Armand Parayre who, with his brother and two of his brothers-in-law, was in charge of the savings bank that the Humberts had founded in 1893.     But then, in May 1902, iniquities of which the Parayres knew nothing were reported in the French press. Henri Matisse's father-in-law had worked in good faith for Frédéric Humbert, only to find that his employers were confidence tricksters and swindlers on a monumental scale. Humbert and his wife had got out of France just in time, leaving Armand Parayre to face not only a national scandal but, quite possibly, a prison sentence.     Ruin and disgrace stalked society at every level. Madame Humbert's jeweler on the rue de la Paix killed himself. One of Frédéric's brothers was found hanged. More than one related murder was suspected. Parayre and pariah became synonymous. When Armand Parayre took refuge with his daughter Berthe in Rouen, the police kept a twenty-four-hour watch on the house. To say that the Parayres "lost everything" would be an understatement. Not only were they ruined and ostracized, but when the Humberts were found in Madrid and brought back to Paris in chains, the case took on a new dimension. As their presumed accomplice, Armand Parayre was charged with complicity in fraud and forgery and imprisoned in the Conciergerie.     At that point, it was not the Parayres who kept the family together. It was Henri Matisse. Thanks to his early years in a lawyer's office, Henri Matisse was able to busy himself to great effect in the organization of his father-in-law's defense. When all about him lost their heads, burst into tears, and felt more than sorry for themselves, Henri Matisse dealt with their problems one by one, He got Frédéric's uncles to stop blowing off steam to no purpose. He dealt with newspaper editors and forced them to retract their wilder accusations. He negotiated with the prosecuting magistrate and got permission to confer with Armand Parayre and to help him prepare for his days in court. To every detail of an immensely complicated case, he brought qualities of clarity and dispatch. Nor was he at all intimidated by the new world with which he had to deal.     In a matter of weeks, Armand Parayre was acquitted of all charges. On January 31, 1903, he was provisionally released. For Henri Matisse, this must have been deeply satisfying. He had proved himself not only as a full member of the Matisse/Parayre family, but as its only effective member at a time of trial and torment. It is a very curious fact that although the entire episode had been entirely creditable to Henri Matisse, it was never straightened out in print until Hilary Spurling published The Unknown Matisse .     The ordeal had taken its toll, in more than one way. His doctors ordered Henri Matisse to go to Bohain and take two months' complete rest. Aunt Berthe still had her job in Rouen, but she had been diagnosed as having lung troubles that might indicate the early stages of tuberculosis. Amélie had lost both her hat shop and the apartment on the rue de Châteaudun. For the first time, Henri, Amélie, and the three children were united in Bohain, having nowhere else to go.     It was not a happy visit. Not long before, Henri Matisse's father had suffered heavy financial losses from the failure and disgrace of one of his wife's relations in Le Cateau, Bohain in winter smelled awful and looked awful.     Local investors both big and small, all the way from Bohain to Lille, had lost every penny that they had risked with the Humberts. Henri was derided all over town as "that idiot Matisse," Pierre somehow picked up the rumor that his father would have to give up painting altogether and take a job as adviser to one of the more upmarket weavers in Bohain. The weavers in question had a few rivals in France, and they were rightly proud of their status. But the children were by now old enough to sense that in other respects this had been a grim in place in which to grow up. At home there was, moreover, the perennial problem that Pierce once outlined with Characteristic brevity to Rosamond Bernier: "My grandfather loved his son, and his son loved him, but they couldn't get through tto one another. My father never talked about that, but I think that it made him very unhappy. My father worried about me. As we say in France, `Little children, little worries. Big, children, big worries.' And it's true. Children don't think about it. They don't know how much their parents worry about their existence, their future, their direction in life. Young people take things for granted. They only think about themselves. My father often worried about Marguerite, Jean, and myself."     That "they couldn't get through to one another" was to be a recurrent agony for the Matisse family. But Pierre in boyhood seems to have tussled with it in silence, if at all. When Henri Matisse began to do well as a painter, and the family could live together at Clamart, near Paris, Pierce was mildly obstreperous. If it was raining, he would walk up the street in the gutter on his way to school in hopes of catching a cold and having to stay at home.     But then he was never a show-off student. When he went to the Lycée Montaigne in Paris, the good students in class sat in the front row, and the bad ones in the back row. Pierre and his friend, the future painter Yves Tanguy, sat side by side in the back row until Tanguy was expelled for sniffing ether.     Pierre was not expelled, but he didn't win any prizes, either, and his parents thought it was time for him to shape up. His brother, Jean, was at that time in a boarding school in Noyan, where the headmaster was known to Tante Berthe. Very soon, Pierre was put on the train to Noyon.     It was a disagreeable experience for him. His brother was older, stronger, and more violent than he was. When they fought -- which was all the time -- Pierre always got the worst of it. Humiliations of that sort are never forgotten.     There were better times, though. In 1911 Tante Berthe was appointed director of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Ajaccio, Corsica. Pierre and his sister Marguerite enjoyed going to see her there, and at the age of twelve he was allowed to dance the mazurka for half an hour every evening with some of his aunt's more favored pupils. Privileges of this sort were to have a fateful result when he returned to Ajaccio at the end of World War I.     Time passed, though not -- as far as Pierre was concerned -- in an obsessedly purposeful way. In 1918 he was due to be called up for military service. At that particular stage in World War I, it was relatively agreeable to be sent to man the guns in a large fortress. This was arranged, therefore. But no sooner had Pierre arrived at the fortress in question than he caught the Spanish influenza that was raging in Europe. "I was there with six other men," he said later, "and I was the only one to come out alive." Seconded to the tank corps, he hurt his back and was sent to work as a driver at headquarters. It was safe and relatively easy work, much coveted by well-connected young men.     After the war ended in November 1918, Pierre still had two years' service to fulfill. He summed them up to Rosamond Bernier in his most laconic style: "It was in Paris. You were sent from office to office. I would go home for lunch. Then I started painting. It didn't turn out to be anything. I had a love story, the way young people do. I was in the office that dealt with demobilizations. The adjutant in charge made me very angry because he was always calling me by the most filthy names. So when I saw his application for demobilization on my desk, along with hundreds of others, I put it at the bottom of the pile. It stayed there for six months."     Thus revenged on Authority, Pierre set out on his life as a grown man. Copyright © 1999 John Russell. All rights reserved.