Pierre Henri Matisse
To say that he’s related to someone famous is an understatement; and the second you learn his name, you know why.
Pierre Henri Matisse is, in many ways, the living embodiment of the artistic master whom he called grandfather. Still, this 88-year-old scion has lived an exciting and meaningful life in its own right, apart from the shadow cast by his celebrated surname.
He fought the Nazis with the French resistance during World War II, made a career as an artist and photographer, and traveled to the U.S. in pursuit of the American dream.
He looks back on these experiences in his memoir The Missing Matisse (Tyndale Momentum, 2016).
Tribune: Not many people can lay claim to a lineage like yours. Did you know that your grandfather was famous?
Matisse: I was just a boy. To me, my grandfather was like anyone else. What was funny about him was that he had very little leisure time.
Contrary to what some people think, serious artists live a demanding life. Their work eats them alive.
My grandfather was a fanatic about his art. He was always working. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing him without a brush, a pencil, or a piece of charcoal in his hand.
Tribune: How did your grandfather contribute to your own development as an artist?
Matisse: My grandfather didn’t believe that one could teach art; you have the talent that you have and you cultivate it on your own.
He would, however, give people advice, and I remember one occasion in particular.
When I was about 12, I was very interested in painting. I believed that the more colors a painter had, the better he was.
I gradually built up a large collection of colors, which I kept in a shoebox. One day, when I visited my grandfather in his studio, I brought this box full of different paints.
I was confident that I was really going to impress him. “Oh, he is a big-time artist,” I imagined him saying about me.
So, he opened up my box of colors and looked at it for a moment. Then he chose four tubes and said to me, “Pierre, I am confiscating the rest of these paint colors. The four I’ve chosen are all that you will need.”
And that was the end of the lesson. [LAUGHS]
Tribune: Did you follow his advice?
Matisse: Not at first, no. I thought he was crazy.
But over the years, I began to realize that he was right. What seems like a very few colors can be mixed to make new colors, and that’s what he did with his artwork. And that is basically what I do with mine.
Tribune: Apart from having a famous grandfather, you yourself have had some incredible experiences throughout your life, which you explore in detail in the book—especially during World War II.
Matisse: Yes, my father, Jean Matisse, and I assisted both the British intelligence service and the French underground by helping spies.
When the Germans took France in 1940, we were living in Toulouse, which wasn’t far from the French Riviera, where France’s Navy fleet was anchored. When the Germans tried to take these ships, the French sailors scuttled them and went to link up with the underground.
They had to travel in secrecy to avoid detection, and our home was one of the waypoints where they could find cover.
My father and I also helped in the resistance movement. We were armed with machine guns, grenades, and a shortwave radio that enabled us to listen to broadcasts from London, some of which contained codes that were meant for members of the French resistance.
Merely possessing the radio could have gotten you executed by the Gestapo, so we were taking significant risks at a very treacherous time.
Tribune: But art has always been a part of your life.
Matisse: Definitely. I came to the United States several years after the war, and worked as a photographer. I also continued painting and have been doing so my whole life.
Tribune: Did the war influence you as an artist?
Matisse: Very much so. Living under Nazi occupation in France enhanced my appreciation for freedom.
The Jews were persecuted, certain books were banned, and my country was no longer my own. You couldn’t think for yourself.
When you go through that, you grow to love freedom.
To me, art represents freedom—freedom of thought, freedom of expression—and that’s why I love America so much.
Tribune: That sentiment aptly summarizes the spirit of your memoir. What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
Matisse: Well, I’m in my late 80s, and most everyone hopes that they’ve done something worthwhile with their life. So, in part, I thought it was time to tell my story.
But for me personally, this book forced me to reflect on my own life, which is what I think all memoirs should do. If I learned anything about myself while writing, it is that I am a survivor.
I hope that this alone is an inspiration to readers.