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Portrait of the artist in his true colours

THE UNKNOWN MATISSE Volume I 1869-1908 By Hilary Spurling Hamish Hamilton, #163;25.

We have, above all, the image of Matisse wrapped up warm against a Riviera winter in 1944. Henri Cartier-Bresson's photograph shows him surrounded by birdcages, watched over by doves. Peering benignly through his pebble specs, he is engaged in drawing the doviness of a companion dove, reducing it to a few swift lines. He has it in his grip, holding it by feet and tail feathers so that it catches the light.

The first volume of Hilary Spurling's biography throws new light on Henri Matisse, brilliantly illuminating the years up to 1908 during which he gradually became the one painter Picasso couldn't ignore. Older than Picasso, infinitely better-spoken (in French, at any rate), taller and sporting a formidable square red beard, Matisse was often one step ahead of the Spanish upstart.

In 1907, a key year, their rivalry was good for each other. Gertrude Stein, whose family was divided in its championship of the two artists, summed up their relationship with a paradox. They were "friends but were enemies".

Spurling Volume I invites comparisons with John Richardson's A Life of Picasso. Richardson has had a head start of almost two volumes (Volume II: 1907-1911 is published by Pimlico, Pounds 20) and a wealth of personal memories and research assistance to draw on; his treatment of Picasso is dazzlingly busy. Spurling is more measured in approach and her text is less peppered with illustrations. Her achievement, however, is in some respects even greater than Richardson's.

What's fascinating, biographically and aesthetically, about Matisse and Picasso, is their developing duality, or polarity - their jockeying for pole position in the Paris avant-garde. In 1907 Matisse was getting on for 40 and well-known, notorious indeed, for paintings that took the decorous symbolism of old boys like Puvis de Chavannes and gave it a bollocking. "Bathers with a Turtle" and, the following year, the souped-up tablecloth and wallpaper of "Harmony in RedLa Desserte" were the amazing outcome of years spent overcoming inhibitions and making his way.

Picasso used to visit Matisse's studio most Fridays. They exchanged paintings, and their awareness of each other stimulated their daring. Matisse was furious, for example, when he first saw Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon": he regarded it as an insult and reacted by excelling himself in painting, for Count Shchukin, the Russian textile magnate, the green fields and clean-limbed terracotta Arcadians of "La Danse" and "La Musique".

How far, how sublimely far, Matisse had come from his miserable origins in Bohain in godforsaken French Flanders, a small town stinking of tallow, bigotry and sugar beet. Picasso the prodigy was encouraged from the start; Matisse would have become, and remained, a lawyer's clerk had he not been infected with the urge to paint and escape.

In Paris he learnt how not to proceed, absorbing then sweating out the influence of Moreau, his teacher; of Impressionism, the obvious mode to adopt; and of his juniors, such as Derain, who mistook brashness for probity.

Spurling has put established Matisse scholarship, so-called, to shame by examining periods of the artist's life that have been written off as uneventful. She gives a vivid account of the student years, of Matisse's energy and resulting distractions: his fathering a child, Marguerite, his marrying Amelie Parayre, his desperate two years, during which he lived for a while back in Bohain. There he turned out what he hoped would be saleable pictures in the hope of salvaging the prosperity and reputation of his in-laws when they were unfairly tainted by the scandal of the Humbert Affair, the denouement of a massive and far-reaching fraud involving banks and government.

No wonder Matisse retrenched, in art as in life, in the period from 1902 to 1903. More of a wonder is the fact that Hilary Spurling has transformed Matisse studies, has gone where French art historians in particular have never bothered to go, and has filled in the backgrounds - in Flanders, Paris, Brittany, Collioure - that show up Matisse's motives and motifs.

In a biography, years of struggle are more interesting than years of fulfilment, but it is also true that a life in art continues to be a struggle in that each work is a potential failure. This makes the second volume of Spurling's Matisse promise to be equally revelatory. Throughout what she has written so far there is the thrill of seeing (as we find with all good art) that at every stage, he is only just beginning.

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