Cover image for Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts By John Bidwell

Graphic Passion

Matisse and the Book Arts

John Bidwell


$65 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07111-4

264 pages
9" × 11"
165 color illustrations
Co-published with The Morgan Library & Museum

Penn State Series in the History of the Book

Graphic Passion

Matisse and the Book Arts

John Bidwell

“A full and riveting account of Matisse’s evolving relationship with the Book.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
The great painter Henri Matisse was also a great book illustrator. A pioneering member of the Fauves, a supreme colorist, a remarkable draftsman, and a creative genius: this is the Matisse known and admired by everyone with even a passing interest in modern art. But few know Matisse as an artist who designed and illustrated his own books. From 1912 until his death in 1954, he engaged in nearly fifty illustration projects, many of which rank among the greatest artists’ books of the twentieth century. A master printmaker, equally adept in various media, he ensured that his prints would appear to best advantage in conjunction with the printed page. He directly participated in page layout, typography, lettering, ornament, cover design, and even the choice of text. More than any others of his rank and stature, he knew the principles of visual communication and perceived the potential of letterpress printing.

Graphic Passion recounts the publication history of nearly fifty books illustrated by Matisse, including masterworks such as Lettres portugaises, Mallarmé’s Poésies, and his own Jazz. It is the first comprehensive, in-depth analysis of his book-production ventures and the first systematic survey of this topic in English. Drawing on unpublished correspondence and business documents, it contains new information about his illustration methods, typographic precepts, literary sensibilities, and staunch opinions about the role of the artist in the publication process.

“A full and riveting account of Matisse’s evolving relationship with the Book.”
“This illuminating book considers Matisse’s illustrated books in admirable detail, giving unprecedented attention to the collaborative nature of Matisse’s book projects and to the relationship between their aesthetic qualities and the various technical factors that went into their production.”
“Scholarly interest in this type of art production has in the past been relegated to a secondary position, due to, until fairly recently, the tendency of art historians to consider bookmaking a craft rather than a “high-art” process. Bidwell’s catalogue rectifies that lack as it provides detailed and precise descriptions coupled to informed, informative essays on the history and background of each book and, by extension, the activities of creative book production in Paris during the first half of the 20th century.”
Graphic Passion more than compensates for those of us unable to attend the exhibition that accompanied it at the Morgan Library and Museum.”

John Bidwell is Astor Curator and Department Head of Printed Books and Bindings at The Morgan Library & Museum.


Director’s Foreword

Peggy Fogelman

Matisse Book Illustrations

Michael M. Baylson, Frances Batzer Baylson

Mallarmé’s Poésies:

“I will be vindicated by my maquette” Jay McKean Fisher


John Bidwell

Catalogue Notes

Appendix: How I Made My Books

Henri Matisse

Sources and Abbreviations




This catalogue describes forty-seven books illustrated by Matisse between 1912 and 1954. Some of the books contain only a single illustration, a print commissioned by a publisher or a portrait solicited by a friend. Others occupied his attention for weeks and months while he drew preliminary studies, constructed a typographical framework, and supervised the production process. Each of these projects large and small reveals something about his deep appreciation for the printed word. Of all the great artist-illustrators in his generation, he put the most in and got the most out of the books he made, a personal investment amply repaid by the success of Mallarmé’s Poésies, Lettres portugaises, and Jazz. He had a highly refined literary sensibility attuned to a wide range of poetry and prose, canonical works of French literature as well as experimental verse of the avant-garde. He endeavored to express his admiration for his favorite authors and sought to share his pleasure in the reading experience. Reading for him was a joyous and intense exercise of mind and spirit, an essential part of the daily routine during his sedentary old age and a salutary distraction during the worst part of the war. A revolving bookcase stood by his bedside within easy reach should he want to consult a dictionary or one of the classic texts he kept for ready reference. As he grew older and more infirm, he turned his bedroom into a studio, a place where he could plot the layout of a page and jot down ideas for illustrations with drafting instruments easily at hand. If better suited for his physical capabilities, illustration was not an inferior alternative to painting. It was not a second-choice career. Rather it was a natural outgrowth of his literary interests and his desire to reach a wider public than was possible with other artistic mediums.

Through his publications Matisse could communicate directly with students, collectors, customers, and critics. He welcomed the opportunity to display his work in printed form without having to depend on dealers. Their showrooms were the marketplace of paintings, which could also be seen in museums, but many of his most ambitious efforts had been acquired by private collectors whose holdings had become inaccessible except to a privileged few. Such was the fate of important paintings he had sold to the American collector Albert Barnes and the Russian entrepreneur Sergei Shchukin, one unwilling and the other unable to make them available for study and exhibition. Facsimiles were not an option because paintings were difficult to reproduce with the color printing technologies available at that time. He much preferred to produce albums of black-and-white drawings, three of which are noted in this catalogue. The photogravure and collotype processes could render line and tone with a pinpoint accuracy still beyond the reach of fine screen offset printing. Printed on fine paper, these albums contained original prints and other accoutrements highly valued by collectors. At his insistence they always appeared with some kind of textual accompaniment explaining or describing his objectives.

Ordinarily he resisted the temptation to write about his work. He discouraged attempts at interpretation and distrusted art movements that intellectualized the visual experience. He believed that an artistic product should be self-sufficient, a free-standing independent entity unencumbered by outside influences. Nonetheless, he had an analytical cast of mind, a love of language, and a way with words evident on those occasions when he broke his rule of silence and expressed his views about the creative process and the state of his profession. He developed a remarkably cogent theory of illustration, which emerges almost fully formed in interviews and essays. As one might expect, he rejected conventional notions of interpretative illustration and advocated a less subservient approach, a reconception rather than a recapitulation of a literary text. An author’s work should succeed on its own merits, he believed, and should not require any kind of commentary visual or otherwise. The artist should not depict settings, incidents, and individuals but rather “accompany the author on a parallel track” and provide a sympathetic “equivalent” in a different medium that might enhance the reading experience. These and other comments are quoted in this catalogue wherever they apply to specific publications. His most substantial statement on this subject, “How I Made My Books,” is reprinted here in an appendix. He was working on several books when he wrote that essay and could recount how he thought through the design concepts for some he had already completed. Evaluating what he had produced, and visualizing what he wished to achieve, he outlined his two main artistic goals in creating an illustrated book: first, to establish a “rapport with the literary character of the work;” second, to strike a harmonious balance between image and text. He excelled in both of these endeavors, an accomplishment attributable to his versatility, temperament, and resources.

Matisse relished his friendships with writers and members of the book trade. Henry de Montherlant, Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon, Pierre Reverdy, and René Char were among the authors in his acquaintance who participated in more than one of his publication projects. They helped to form his taste in literature and encouraged him to explore illustration possibilities. For literary guidance, he frequently turned to his colleague and confidant André Rouveyre, whose voluminous correspondence has provided invaluable information for this catalogue. He had longstanding cordial relationships with printmakers such as Fernand Mourlot and Roger Lacourière, both conversant with his working methods and capable of carrying out his commissions in his absence. They too advised him on his book production ventures, although he decided which printing process would best suit the character of the text and the price-point of the publication. Equally adept in different techniques, he produced linocuts, lithographs, and etchings for luxury books signed and numbered to indicate the extent of his contributions. Occasionally he allowed his work to be interpreted as wood-engravings or pochoirs but only under close supervision. For ordinary trade books and demi-luxe editions he provided charcoal drawings reproduced as halftones and pen-and-ink designs printed by zinc cuts — photomechanical methods he disliked in practice but would accept as a favor to a friend and a rare concession to commercial considerations.

Matisse had the good fortune to live at a time when he could choose between many different printing techniques. Some of them are no longer practiced on a commercial basis. The pochoir business was already in decline when he selected that process as the one best qualified to reproduce the gouache cut-outs he made for Jazz. The graphic arts industry abandoned collotype in the 1980s. Letterpress was in its heyday during the lifetime of Matisse but would soon lose ground to photocomposition, offset printing, and other postwar technological developments. He lived in a period of typographic innovation, yet he preferred a very strict and conservative style of book design. His taste ran to old-style typefaces set in large sizes with generous leading and a vast expanse of margin, a time-honored formula he adopted for his Mallarmé, Ronsard, Baudelaire, and Visages. He upheld the tenets of classical typography just as he espoused the principles of “order and clarity” in his painting. “I do not distinguish between the construction of a book and that of a painting,” he claimed, “and I always proceed from the simple to the complex, yet I am always ready to reconceive in simplicity.” That last comment speaks to his labor-intensive approach to art creation in all mediums, paintings and drawings as well as books. His conviction that many studies should lead up to the finished product, his indefatigable experimentation with themes and variations help to explain the elegant proportions of the printed page, the carefully calibrated weight of text, the inspired design of ornaments, and the uncluttered appearance of the ensemble, all while preserving a sensual pleasure in the tint of ink, the grain of paper, and the quality of the impression.

Attentive as he was to these details, Matisse did not sketch out typographical ideas entirely on his own. He expected printers to submit for his approval sample pages and specimens of type so that he could consider a range of possibilities. He could ask for revisions in a back-and-forth exchange of proofs and could use the proofs to make a paste-up dummy, a maquette, which enabled him to envisage the overall appearance of the book and assess the effect of two-page openings in the proper sequence. Sometimes he prepared a series of maquettes while changing his mind about the placement of the illustrations and the organization of the text. After giving due time to these deliberations, he would then allow the printers to proceed although he might inspect another round of proofs while the book was in press. As a matter of principle he insisted that they had to abide by the decisions he made in the maquette and in the course of correcting proofs. He had the last word, but they gave him the means to express himself in typographic terms. He respected their skills, invited their advice, and learned from their opinions.

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that book production is a collaborative enterprise, a group effort organized by publishers in association with artists, authors, agents, editors, printers, binders, booksellers, and many others engaged in allied trades. Some of the larger publishers employed executive assistants and middle-management personnel such as art directors, book designers, and production managers. Altogether Matisse worked with nearly forty different publishing firms large and small, some renowned in literary circles, others in the artistic community. By recounting his dealings with these firms, this catalogue shows how he relied on book people for guidance and assistance, how he formulated his instructions, and how he evaluated the results. It covers the entire book production process from the original conceptualization to the point of sale.

In that respect it is more of a publishing history than a catalogue although it contains the usual bibliographical apparatus and describes typographical features in greater detail than other accounts of his illustrated work. Instead of focusing on single illustrations, it puts them in context with the artistic agenda he discussed with his business partners as well as the commercial goals and financial factors he mentioned in his contracts and correspondence. These documents shed new light on his methods and intentions, which are easier to interpret with a grounding in the basics of the book trade. They reveal how he coped with the almost constant turmoil in the French economy occasioned by the Depression, the German occupation, and the ever present problem of inflation. Sometimes he took on a project more as a friendly gesture than a business proposition. This catalogue tracks his relationships with people who solicited illustrations and presents biographical information about them to explain how they gained his confidence and persuaded him to undertake these projects. Some of the authors were already famous before they became acquainted with Matisse. Some of the publishers were fairly obscure, but they are worth noting here to show how they made a living in this trade and what they hoped to accomplish by making illustrated books.

The catalogue entries are arranged in chronological order. At a glance it will be obvious that book illustration played only a small part in his artistic career until the 1930s, and even then it did not fully engage his attention until the outbreak of the war. From then on he became increasingly absorbed in this activity and sometimes had several concurrent projects under way. Some he allowed to lapse and then revived years later after starting others in the meantime. The actual publication dates are difficult to establish because an edition might be completed a few copies at a time while the covers were being prepared and while the constituent parts of the edition were being assembled — the ordinary copies, the specials, and the extra ingredients in the specials. There is, however, a fixed point in the production process that can be used to establish a consistent chronology, the achevé d’imprimer, the date when the letterpress printing was concluded. Other manufacturing operations occurred after this date, but it is a reliable means of organizing the catalogue entries in a predictable sequence. If authors or publishers collaborated with Matisse on more than one illustration project, biographical information concerning them will be found in the first of the entries where they play a part, and the later entries will refer to them only in regard to their participation in those publications. This way one can see how Matisse formed a network of trusted associates in the book trade. Some people dropped out of his inner circle after suffering setbacks in their political and business affairs (e.g., Waldemar-George and Martin Fabiani), while others became increasingly involved in his illustration ventures during the last years of his life (e.g., Tériade and Fernand Mourlot). In the background hover artists and writers such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso, just to cite three names that frequently recur in this catalogue. Directly or indirectly they influenced the literary content and the design concepts in many of these books.

Artwork by Matisse appears in a wide range of printed matter — books, periodicals, albums, brochures, catalogues, and programs. These publications are described in Claude Duthuit’s Catalogue raisonné des ouvrages illustrés (1988) in varying levels of detail depending on the nature and extent of his artistic contributions. Duthuit identified nearly forty books containing original prints. If a book contained a number of prints, he listed them in a comprehensive page-by-page inventory including an itemized record of decorative initials and ornaments in text. About a hundred shorter entries account for less ambitious illustration projects. Taking Duthuit’s work as a starting point, I have selected all the books in which Matisse had some direct personal participation even though it may be more perceptible in his business dealings than in the book itself. With one exception, I have not discussed any of his posthumous publications, but I mention some of them in passing to explain how a major undertaking such as Pasiphaé or Apollinaire might provide the wherewithal for satellite projects such as Gravures originales (1981) and the ill-fated Lettres à Lou (ca. 1955). Some but not all of the books abandoned by Matisse figure here as evidence of his illustration methods. His correspondence is full of plans for books he would never complete, a promising opportunity for further research. Likewise more work could be done on his cut-out designs for the covers of books and journals. Perhaps they deserve a separate chapter in this monograph, but once again I have opted to touch on just a few representative examples.

Each entry concludes with a bibliographical note summarizing the publishing history and the physical characteristics of the book. By referring to these notes, one should be able to identify the books, compare them, and visualize some of their graphic features. Anglo-American bibliographical conventions have been followed in most respects although some procedures have been adapted to account for French printing and publishing practices. I have translated most of the technical terms, but I have retained some that designate qualities of paper and different types of special copies. I have cited the full names of artists, printers, printmakers, papermakers, and typefounders whenever possible. Here follow some explanatory comments about the particulars of bibliographical description.

Page Size. Measurements are in centimeters, height before width. In some cases it has been possible to establish the format of the book in terms of the traditional French paper sizes. Grand Jésus (56 x 76 cm.), raisin (50 x 65 cm.), and carré (45 x 56 cm.) were among the common sizes used in sheet-fed presses at that time. A Jésus sheet could be folded in various ways to make books of different sizes such as a 38 x 28 cm. quarto or a 19 x 14 cm. 16mo. These terms of the trade were dying out, but a few publishers still used them, and they reveal some of Matisse’s preferences in book design. Raisin quarto was a standard format for his more ambitious books.

Pagination. French printers customarily included a number of blank leaves at the beginning and the end of a bibliophile edition. I have recorded them even though they might look like binders’ flyleaves. Some of the blanks are difficult to see because they have been tucked inside the wrappers, but they should be mentioned if only because they are sometimes conjugate with a half-title or a frontispiece. Full-page plates are almost always included in the pagination. Matisse was meticulous about the placement of his plates and often depended on the pagination to instruct binders and collectors about his intentions. His frustration with the missing page numbers in Repli is a case in point.

Illustrations. This section enumerates illustrations by Matisse as well as those of other artists who contributed to collaborative projects in which he was involved. Printmaking terms were sometimes used indiscriminately in this period. For example, the title page of Repli refers to lithographs as gravures, a misnomer Rouveyre urged him to correct without success. I have used standard nomenclature for photogravures and collotypes as well as various types of relief cuts such as wood-engravings, linocuts, halftone blocks, and zinc-cut reproductions of line drawings. It is unclear whether Matisse’s printers used the original linocuts or zinc-cut reproductions in some of his books (see nos. 21 and 45). This section also identifies the commercial firms and the printmaking studios that produced these illustrations. In his later years Matisse was able to insist that his lithographs should be printed by Fernand Mourlot, his etchings by Roger Lacourière. Between then they were responsible for printing illustrations in 26 of the 47 books described in this catalogue.

Typography. The colophon almost always supplies names of printers and often mentions others involved in manufacturing the letterpress portion of the book. Matisse sometimes claimed credit for the design as well as the illustrations by stating that he had made the maquette for the use of the printers. He liked to have a choice of types, and his personal favorites — Caslon, Didot, and Garamond — figure prominently in this catalogue. I have tried to specify the size and style of typefaces in every one of these books, even those he did not design, to show which faces were fashionable in fine printing circles and which ones were deemed adequate for ordinary trade editions. In some cases I have been able to ascertain whether a text was set by hand with foundry types or by machine with Linotype or Monotype equipment. Relief cuts for ornaments and initials are noted in this section if they were printed along with the text.

Paper. Books illustrated by Matisse were almost always issued on several types of paper as was common practice in the book trade at that time. Publishers of limited editions prescribed hierarchies of fine-paper copies and ranked them in order of rarity and prestige. At the top of the list there might be a few copies on Japon accompanied with an original drawing or an extra suite of prints, at the bottom some hundreds of copies on ordinary machine-made wove. The limitation statement assigned sequences of numbers to each of these fine-paper issues in a concatenation of specials from copy no. 1 to the end of the edition. The Baylson Collection has many of the specials, the Morgan has obtained some more to complete the collection, and I have seen some in other libraries. In the course of compiling this catalogue I have been able to examine almost every issue of every edition, but a few fine-paper specials have been difficult to locate. I have not yet seen a copy of Alternances on Montval, Brocéliande on Hollande, or Dessins: Thèmes et Variations on vélin d’Arches. Handmade papers like Montval were highly esteemed although printers might prefer the more consistent and less expensive mould-mades. Manufactured on cylinder mould machines, mould-mades performed better on the press and could replicate the distinctive features of handmades such as watermarks and deckles. Matisse often ordered Arches mould-mades for his prints and cut-outs. The book trade sometimes referred to mould-mades with the sobriquet “à la forme,” which implies that they had been made by hand. The same confusion exists in English, but hand papermakers in England were more vocal than their counterparts in France when they objected to misleading labels and false advertising practices.

Edition. This section includes the printing date noted in the achevé d’imprimer and the publication information contained in the limitation statement. I have tried to translate this information in a consistent fashion in every entry. As noted above, the printing date may be several months before copies are actually available in the trade, and those copies may not appear on the market all at once. Sometimes I have been able to provide a more precise chronology of publication. I have recorded the prices of these publications whenever I have found that information in advertisements, archival sources, or trade journals such as Bibliographie de la France and Biblio: catalogue des ouvrages parus en langue française dans le monde entier. Prices can help to measure the elasticity of demand for limited editions. Publishers could charge a huge premium for books like Repli, which cost a hundred times more than the trade edition. On top of that, they could sell the specials for more than twice as much as the ordinary copies. Of course their marketing strategies were not always successful, and sometimes they had to remainder an edition at a lower price. Matisse consigned the leftover stock of Cinquante Dessins to his son Pierre Matisse, who sold it at a discount to American collectors. Estampes could be considered to have been impossibly expensive if the price announced in Biblio can be believed — 248,000 francs, such a large amount that dealers might have been tempted to break up copies and sell the most lucrative prints at sums easier to manage. These figures should also be used with caution because of the inflationary forces in the French economy. Nonetheless they provide a means of comparing the notional value of editions and a sliding scale for gauging the degree of difference between the fine-paper issues of an edition.

Copies examined. The copy numbers cited in parentheses can be correlated with the information in the Edition section to ascertain which of the fine-paper issues have been examined.

References. This section lists the sources I have used for writing the catalogue entry and the bibliographical description. The list is not intended to be comprehensive but contains references that might be useful for further research. Full citations are in “Sources and Abbreviations.”

Exhibitions. It would be difficult and cumbersome to list all the exhibitions containing examples of Matisse’s illustrated work. Nonetheless, some of them should be noted here because they were accompanied by catalogues presenting original research based on archival sources. The in-depth treatment of the Mallarmé in the catalogue published by Musée Départemental Stéphane Mallarmé deserves honorable mention in this respect. Likewise proper credit should be given to the survey exhibitions at the State Hermitage Museum in 1980 and the Musée Matisse in 1986, both covering Matisse’s entire illustration career.

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