Rare & Beautiful
Matisse as Book Illustrator and Designer
Along with his vivid illustrations, for almost all his books, Matisse oversaw the selection of paper, typeface, and layout.
The artist Henri Matisse (1869–1954) was not the most prolific book illustrator of the twentieth century. That title goes to Picasso, who provided illustrations for no fewer than 156 books, while Matisse only contributed to some 50 titles. But what differentiates the two was the intense love Matisse felt for books, and the care and attention he lavished on them.
He was not content with just creating illustrations, and for almost all his books oversaw the selection of paper, typeface, and layout. Very much like Picasso, though, Matisse collaborated with authors on books, taking advantage of a variety of graphic design processes, including etching, lithography, linocut, and pochoir.
Matisse’s involvement in all aspects of the book production process is well documented in John Bidwell's catalogue (2015) of the Morgan Library exhibition Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts. In an amusing piece of symmetry, the first book Matisse illustrated appeared in 1918, and the last book featuring his illustrations was published posthumously in 1981. Some of the highlights of Matisse’s career as a book illustrator follow.
This career did not get off to a very good start. Matisse’s first foray into the field, Les Jockeys Camouflés, featuring poems by Pierre Reverdy, was published in Paris 1918 by A La Belle Edition. This work included reproductions of five drawings by Matisse and the text was printed in green, orange, and blue ink—a fact that upset Reverdy so much that he denounced it, and reissued the book at his own expense with the text printed in black.
Matisse’s next book did not appear for fourteen years, but when it did, it turned out to be his masterpiece, and the first of his four major contributions to the twentieth-century illustrated book. This was an edition of the poems of Stéphane Mallarmé, commissioned by the publisher Albert Skira. With twenty-nine full-page etchings, it is a model of elegant simplicity and one of the finest of all modern illustrated books.
In 1935, Matisse accepted another commission, this time from the American publisher responsible for the Limited Editions Club, George Macy, for an edition of Ulysses by James Joyce. Although in many ways Matisse’s most popular book, and issued in an edition of 1,500 copies, the most common, it is also the most unfortunate of Matisse’s books. The artist was not involved in the design, and the resulting book is, to say the least, undistinguished. In addition, Matisse found the book difficult to translate visually (there is still a debate as to whether he ever read it), and so resorted to concentrating on the book’s Homeric subtext.
During World War II, in 1944, Matisse produced another major work, this one an illustrated version of poet Henri de Montherlant’s Pasiphaé, Chant de Minos, containing no fewer than 147 linoleum engravings. The use of linocuts and the juxtaposition of red and black create a distinctive and singularly elegant book. The fact that such an object could be produced amid the rigors of the wartime occupation of France is itself a marvel.
The year 1947 saw the appearance of the book for which Matisse is best known, Jazz, published by Tériade in Paris. The book’s twenty illustrations were reproduced in pochoir from cutouts made by Matisse. For a long time, pochoir was considered a graphic reproduction process, and Jazz was omitted from many collections, but today the book is rightfully considered the masterpiece of modern book illustration.
Jazz was followed in 1948 by another commission from Albert Skira, this time for an edition of the poet Pierre de Ronsard’s Florilège des Amours. For this book Matisse produced 128 lithographs. It is one of a handful of books that Matisse illustrated that were not by his contemporaries, but which do not lose any of their power to impress because of that.
The major books illustrated by Matisse have always been avidly pursued by collectors, and many have been broken up into individual illustrations. Nevertheless, and one can still find a good number of his books today at relatively modest prices.
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