Even those of us who have loved Matisse’s work since we began to look at paintings as a serious interest could not have suspected what it had cost this great artist to persevere in his vocation. Pleasure had so often been invoked as the key to an understanding of his achievement—“Un nom qui rime avec Nice . . . peintre du plaisir, sultan de Riviera, hédoniste raffiné,” as Pierre Schneider sardonically described this mistaken characterization of Matisse—that it has come as a shock to discover the sheer scale of adversity that had to be endured at almost every stage of his life and work.

It was not only that his paintings were initially denounced as the work of a madman. That was the common fate of a great many modernists, even in the heydey of the School of Paris. Matisse’s personal circumstances were also plagued by failing health, failing confidence, and a lack of command in the academic...

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