Matisse, French Poetry and the Livre d’artiste (1)

"I do not distinguish between the construction of a book and that of a
painting and I always proceed from the simple to the complex." - 1946


Matisse and the engraver Mourlot examine
the proofs for his book by Ronsard, 1948.

Throughout his long and productive career, Matisse periodically refreshed his creative energies by turning from painting to drawing, sculpture and other forms of artistic expression. A great source of inspiration was poetic. The poetry or poetic prose Matisse loved was intimate, sensuous and personal. In his later years he developed the practice of reading poetry early each day before he raised a paint brush, pencil or etching needle. Matisse noted that poetry was like oxygen: "just as when you leap out of bed you fill your lungs with fresh air." This kept him young at heart.

In his lifetime he also produced more than a dozen illustrated books which were known as “livre d’artiste” (artist’s book), a specific type of illustrated book that became common in France around the turn of the century thanks to the pioneering efforts of Albert Skira and Tériade. These books were deluxe, limited editions, meant to be collected and admired as works of art, as well as, read.

His first book, Poésies, of 1932, included mythologically inspired images based on texts by Stéphane Mallarmé, while his Jazz of 1947, known for its brightly colored pochoirs, is widely considered one of the most important illustrated books of the modern period.


MATISSE, Henri - Ecrits et propos sur lart, curated by Dominique Fourcade, Hermann, Parigi, 1972

MATISSE, Henri - Matisse on Art, Oxford, 1973
Opere illustrate da Matisse

REVERDY Pierre - Les Jockeys camouflis, drawingsi, A la Belle Edition,
Parigi, 1918

VILDRAC, Charles - Cinquante dessim, edited by Matisse, Parigi, 1920

MALLARME Stephane - Poesies, engravings and etchings, Skira, Lausanne, 1932

JOYCE, James - Ulysses, engravings and etchings, New York, 1935

MONTH ERLAND, Henry de - Pasiphae, linocuts, Fabiani, Parigi, 1944

ALCOFORADO, Mariana - Lettres d'une religieuse portugaise, lithographs, Tériade, Parigi, 1946

REVERDY, Pierre - Visage, lithographs, ed. du Chene, Parigi, 1946

ROUVEYRE, Andre - Repli, lithographs, ed. du Belier, Parigi, 1947

BAUDELAIRE Charles - Les Fleurs du mal, engravings and etchings,
xilography and photo-lithographs, La Bibliotheque Francaise, Parigi, 1947

MATISSE, Henri - Jazz, stampe a stencil di gouaches decoupees, Tériade, Parigi, 1947

Les Miroirs profonds, poesie varie, disegni, Maeght, Parigi, 1947

KOBER JACQUES - Le vent des epines, drawings by Matisse, Bonnard e Braque, Maeght Gallery, Parigi, 1947

RONSARD, Pierre de - Floritege des Amours, lithographs, Skira, Parigi, 1948

TZARA, Tristan - Midis gagnes, drawings, Denoel, Parigi, 1948

D'ORLEANS, Charles - Poemes, color lithographs, Tériade, Parigi, 1950

Albert Skira

Albert Skira (1904–1973). was born in Geneva. After working in a bank and as an entertainments organizer in luxury hotels, he set up business as a bookseller and in 1931 began his publishing career with Ovid's Les Métamorphoses , illustrated by Picasso . This was quickly followed by more luxury editions of poetry illustrated by Dalí , Matisse , and other distinguished artists.

He began publishing art books with high-quality colour illustrations. From 1933 to 1941 he lived in Paris, where he published the avant-garde periodical Minotaure (1933–9; 13 numbers appearing irregularly); it covered contemporary artistic and literary trends.

Matisse as he checks the printing of one of his lithographs.

Poesies - Stephane Mallarme

Stéphane Mallarmé.
Lausanne: Albert Skira, 1932.
Contains 29 etchings printed in black.
Signed in ink on justification page.


Matisse took his first step in illustration when Swiss publisher Skira approached him in 1930 to illustrate the work Poésies, by 19th century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Matisse responded to Skira’s invitation with great enthusiasm and that summer, devoted most of his attention to the commission while he was residing in Paris. He made an enormous number of drawings for the project, in the end, 27 drawings were engraved which dipslay an elevated purity. He said that he used the extraordinary economy of the thin, engraved line with no shading whatsoever in order not to overpower the etherial quality of Mallarmé's poetry. Matisse’s etchings of Mallarmé’s poems are considered among his greatest works in the print medium.

Matisse's drawings are beguilingly simple images and some are among the artist's greatest works in the medium. Their beauty derives not only from grace of line but from the subtly suggested volumes perfectly positioned on the white page. The grace of the lilting lines are even more impressive becasue they were incised on metal plates, a process that demands great certainty and level pressure.

Each line is an ordered choice that describes its subject while simultaneously creating a satisfying independent shape. Le Cygne captures the bird that attacked Matisse's rowboat the day his son Pierre took that famous photo of him sketching swans in the Bois de Boulogne (see images above).

Black winds upon their march deployed as flags
Whipped them with cold unto the very flesh,
Hollowing furrows in their arms and legs.

Le Guignon.

Le guignon, 1930-1932, from Poésies by Stéphane Mallarmé, Losanna, Albert Skira, 1932. Engraving, 33 x 24.8 cm.

Ulysses - James Joyce

Matisse working at the drawings
for Ulysses.

The illustration of james Joyce's Ulysses by Matisse may be o ne of the most suggestive collaborations in 20th-century literature. “It was a great idea to bring them together; celebrities of the same generation, of similar virtuosity”." The 26 beautiful full-page illustrations by Matisse accompany the text of Joyce’s Ulysses, including six soft-ground etchings with reproductions of the sketches on blue and yellow paper. There have been surprisingly few attempts to illustrate "Ulysses" and, even where they do exist, they do not appear to have elicited much critical approval.

The most notable illustrators have been Matisse, Saul Field and Richard Hamilton. “According to George Macy, who undertook this only American publication of Matisse’s illustrations, he asked the artist how many etchings the latter could provide for $5,000. The artist chose to take six subjects from Homer’s Odyssey. The preparatory drawings reproduced with the soft-ground etchings (Matisse’s only use of this medium) record the evolution of the figures from vigorous sketches to closely knit compositions.” Ulysses is one of the very few American livres de peintres issued before World War II. The prints were very well printed and are frequently included in books on Matisse and exhibitions of Matisse's works

The cover of Ulysses.

Joyce himslef had an ambivalent attitude to those forms of art outside of literature. His confidence in his own abilities were such that he believed himself capable of surpassing, through the written word, all that could be achieved through music and the visual arts. And yet, he proudly displayed, and treasured, portraits of himself and his family, allowed Matisse to illustrate  Ulysses, and consorted with many in the Parisian artistic community.

Joyce was initially pleased that an artist of Matisse’s stature was to illustrate Ulysses. But after some consideration, he became worried that the Frenchman might not be familiar enough with the Irish terrain to do the job. He attempted to have a friend in Ireland send the artist an illustrated weekly from Dublin around 1904. When he discovered that Matisse had not even read the book, but instead depicted six episodes from Homer’s Odyssey, Joyce flew into a rage and refused to sign any more copies.

Poemes de Charles d'Orleans - Charles D'Orleans

Poèmes de Charles d'Orléans.
Charles d'Orléans.
Manuscrits et illustrés par Henri Matisse. 100, (3) pp. 54 original color lithographs, with lithographed text by the artist printed in black within colored lithographic borders. Folio.
Wraps., likewise by Matisse. Publisher's box (flap detached). One of
1200 copies from the limited edition of 1230, signed in pencil by the artist in the justification. Printed by Mourlot Frères.

An illustration for Florilège des
Amour de Charles d'Orléans
, 1948.

Matisse often derived inspiration from French poetry, whether from contemporaries such as Aragon and Mallarmé or medieval poets like Charles d'Orléans (1394-1465). Charles d'Orléans, a member of the French royal family of Valois, has been called the father of French lyric poetry and reputedly the sender of the first valentine. The chief subject matter of his poetry was courtly love and separation, written in such a veiled way that the unknown woman could be one of, or a conflation of, his two wives, a mistress or the land of France itself.

From 1941 to 1944, Matisse dedicated conspicuous time and energy to book illustration. In late 1942 he selected the Poèmes de Charles d'Orléans for illustration and most of the work was completed during 1943 including the text of the poems in Matisse's own hand. Matisse had in mind the idea of a florilège (a literary garland) and the medieval nature of the poems is heightened by Matisse's alternating use of calligraphy framed by scrolls and decorative patterns of fleur-de-lis. The latter are probably derived from the backgrounds of fifteenth century tapestries and are a direct allusion to Charles d'Orléans as the fleur-de-lis formed part of the old royal arms of France.

The Poems of Charles of Orléans by Charles d'Orléans
Tériade, Paris. Mourlot Freres, Paris

Florilege des Amours de Ronsard - Pierre de Ronsard

Florilège des amours de Ronsard
Illustrations de Matisse.
Paris, Skira, 1948. In folio, looses, covers illustrated by Matisse.
126 original lithographs by Henri Matisse in sanguine, portrait on frontispice, 2 compositions on double-page, 27 hors texte et 96 in texte. 320 copies on vélin teinté on chiffon d'Arches, signed by Matisse and the publisher.

In 1941, again for Skira, Matisse began one of his most complicated and successful printmaking projects, Florilège des Amours de Ronsard, illustrating the love poems of 16th century French Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard. Ronsard’s subject and strong imagery lent themselves gracefully to Matisse’s favored themes of fruits, flowers, the female form and portraits. The artist selected the poems himself and translated the work from Renaissance French to contemporary French for the publication of the anthology. It was a difficult time, however, as Matisse was recovering from a series of surgical procedures that left him wheelchair bound. Due to World War II and problems with printing, the project was not completed until 1948.

Matisse with the first copy
of Florilège des Amours de
, 1948.

Matisse exercised full control over selection and interpretation of verses, page layout, paper quality, and typeface.He made several revisions during the seven-year interim, expanding the commission from 30 to 126 illustrations.

Perhaps, the loveliest prints are those that keep close to motifs Matisse knew by heart and for which he had an abiding fondness: botanical shapes, condensed female portraits, and favored studio objects - like the fluted vase or the tobacco jar - that migrated from painting to painting over the years.

Both the Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans and Florilège des Amours de Ronsard were discussed in depth with André Rouveyre, who was a knowledgeable bibliophile, expert on literature and close friend of Matisse. In the correspondence we can also follow how Rouveyre and Matisse collaborated on several publications, above all Rouveyre’s novel Repli and his Apollinaire.

Pierre Ronsard

Pages 26-27 of Florilège des amours by Pierre de Ronsard, Paris, Albert Skira, 1948. Lithograph, 38.1 x 29.2 cm.

Stéphane Mallarmé

Stéphane Mallarmé

The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) has long been regarded by artists, esthetes and specialists in modernist thought as one of the saints of the artistic vocation. In his lifetime he enjoyed the friendship and esteem of Manet, Renoir, Redon, Degas, Gauguin and Whistler, and in the 20th century he continued to exert a considerable influence on writers, painters, composers and masters of the ballet. Yet his own poetry was often so hermetic-Mallarmé himself readily acknowledged that it was unabashedly "extreme" in this respect-that it still defies all attempts to explain its meaning with anything resembling intellectual precision. While its meaning remains elusive, however, the sheer musicality of Mallarmé's poetry continues to enchant its dedicated readers.

Mallarmé's Thought

In all of Mallarmé's writing and thinking, including his letters, a profound and uncompromising rejection of the quotidian world he inhabited as a long-suffering schoolmaster and as a rare genius trapped in the workaday conventions of the bourgeois life of his time. The humdrum social realities that Mallarmé considered too "base" to qualify as proper subjects for poetry and art, were precisely the realities of his daily life. His mission as an artist was conceived as a quest for transcendence.

"To name an object," he insisted, "is largely to destroy poetic enjoyment." The ideal, for Mallarmé, was "to suggest the object." What he called "the magic charm of art" required, then, not description "but rather evocation , allusion , suggestion ." It was only by abandoning the objects of earthly life that poetry and art could achieve a "universal musicality"-a musicality that he identified with "a state of soul."

This was, without doubt, the most radical view of the artistic vocation to be found in the entire history of the modern movement, and it has remained a very controversial view down to the present day. That it was upheld by a writer who was so closely identified with the Impressionist painters, who exulted in the depiction of the quotidian realities Mallarmé rejected in his own work, remains a considerable paradox-and all the more so since it was in the early history of abstract painting, which Mallarmé did not live to see, that his theories seemed to have been triumphantly fulfilled for the first time. Like many a prophet seeking release from the workaday banalities of the world, Mallarmé did not live to enter the Promised Land himself. What he would have thought of an art devoid of objects, had he lived to see it, we cannot know, but that was certainly the direction in which his own artistic theory and practice were heading.