Henri Matisse Illustrates James Joyce’s Ulysses (1935)

Last year, fans of mod­ernist Irish lit­er­a­ture and impres­sion­ist art saw a must-own vol­ume go under the ham­mer at Bon­hams. “In 1935 the French artist, Hen­ri Matisse, was com­mis­sioned to illus­trate an edi­tion of Ulysses for sub­scribers to the Lim­it­ed Edi­tion Club in Amer­i­ca,” announced Artlyst. “Each of the 1,000 copies was signed by Matisse and 250 were also signed by James Joyce. A copy of the book signed by both men is esti­mat­ed at £6,000 to £8,000.”

In the event it went for £6,250, not a bad deal con­sid­er­ing the hands that wrote those sig­na­tures and the rar­i­ty, signed or unsigned, of this unusu­al book itself. (It cer­tain­ly beats, say, $37,000.) Brain­pick­ings’ Maria Popo­va writes that, after first spot­ting the Matisse-illus­trat­ed Ulysses here on Open Cul­ture, “I gath­ered up my year’s worth of lunch mon­ey and was able to grab one of the last copies avail­able online — a glo­ri­ous leather-bound tome with 22-karat gold accents, gilt edges, moire fab­ric end­pa­pers, and a satin page mark­er.” Ver­sions signed by Matisse are appar­ent­ly available–at a steep price–on Ama­zon.

Popo­va adds that “the Matisse draw­ings inside it, of course, are the most price­less of its offer­ings — dou­bly so because, for all their beau­ty, they’re a tragi­com­e­dy of qua­si-col­lab­o­ra­tion.” From whence the tragi­com­e­dy? Pub­lish­ing lore has it that, despite the pro­vi­sion of a full French trans­la­tion of the Ulysses text, Matisse made his illus­tra­tive etch­ings — in the fash­ion of many an under­grad­u­ate with a paper due — with­out ever hav­ing got around to read­ing the book him­self.

“I’ve nev­er ‘read’ Joyce’s Ulysses, and it’s quite plau­si­ble that I nev­er will,” Matis­se’s coun­try­man Pierre Bayard would write sev­en­ty years lat­er in his best­selling How to Talk About Books You Haven’t ReadYet “I feel per­fect­ly com­fort­able when Ulysses comes up in con­ver­sa­tion, because I can sit­u­ate it with rel­a­tive pre­ci­sion in rela­tion to oth­er books. I know, for exam­ple, that it is a retelling of the Odyssey, that its nar­ra­tion takes the form of a stream of con­scious­ness, that its action unfolds in Dublin over the course of a sin­gle day, etc.” — all things that Matisse, too, prob­a­bly knew about Ulysses.

He cer­tain­ly knew that it sup­pos­ed­ly retold the sto­ry of the Odyssey, and so, in a now-inge­nious-look­ing strat­e­gy to not just talk about an unread book but to illus­trate it, he went to the source. Or rather, he went to one of the count­less cul­tur­al, lit­er­ary, his­tor­i­cal, and lin­guis­tic sources upon which Joyce drew to com­pose his mas­ter­piece, bas­ing his art direct­ly on Home­r’s epic poem, in its own way a work more talked about than read. Joyce him­self, who once described much of the tex­tu­al con­tent of Ulysses as intend­ed to “keep the pro­fes­sors busy for cen­turies argu­ing over what I meant,” may well have admired Matis­se’s clar­i­ty of vision, no mat­ter how much-non read­ing it took to refine.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Joyce’s Ulysses: Down­load as a Free Audio Book & Free eBook

Vladimir Nabokov Cre­ates a Hand-Drawn Map of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Read Ulysses Seen, A Graph­ic Nov­el Adap­ta­tion of James Joyce’s Clas­sic

New Art Edi­tion of James Joyce’s Ulysses Fea­tures All 265,000 Words Writ­ten by Hand on Big Wood­en Poles

Hen­ri Matisse Illus­trates Baudelaire’s Cen­sored Poet­ry Col­lec­tion, Les Fleurs du Mal

Vin­tage Film: Watch Hen­ri Matisse Sketch and Make His Famous Cut-Outs (1946)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Kathryn Beckwith says:

    Please note that Hen­ri Matisse was not nor ever con­sid­ered an impres­sion­ist.
    He and a few oth­er notable painters were labelled Fauves, mean­ing wild beasts in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. Matis­se’s work con­tin­ued to devel­op in breath­tak­ing­ly inno­v­a­tive ways through­out his long and pro­lif­ic life. The Impres­sion­ist move­ment pre­ced­ed Hen­ri Matisse by sev­er­al years.

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