Patricia MacLachlan presents Henri Matisse as a child and traces the beginning of his artistic leanings in her book The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse. Beautifully illustrated by Hadley Cooper – beautifully being an understatement – this book is a treat and a tribute to the roles mothers often play in being our first teachers and nurturers of our true creative needs.
Henri Matisse was born in a cold and some may say the dreary town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis, in the extreme north of France.
His father was a grain merchant from a family of weavers. This cold town had colour mainly through its beautiful tapestries that were woven there.
Henri’s father was a busy, practical man, used to shouting out instructions to his workers, a trait he often used while talking to his firstborn. His mother Anne Heliose Gerard loved Henri, his father and her other children unconditionally. She stood behind them like an impenetrable wall, forever encouraging and deeply accepting.
His mother managed the housepaints division of their business. She advised customers on the colour schemes and the mixing of the paints as per their requirements. She also painted exquisite porcelain plates. Henri watched his mother and absorbed all that she did. He started to experiment with colours and understood contrasts and the play of light.
The illustrator Hadley Hooper has taken great pains to incorporate authenticity and detail into the book. In her interview with blaine.org, she details how she went about ideating and creating.
I looked at every painting of his I could find. What a great luxury! I tried to find fabrics that he may have seen in his hometown, which was a textile town. I looked at the era’s fashion, architecture, even thought about the music he might have listened to. I used Google Maps to knit together the street he grew up on, which really hadn’t changed much, architecturally.
I do lots of drawings to get the characters to where I understand what they look like from different angles and poses. I use grease pencil on butcher paper, so I can’t get too detailed or too attached to my first drawings.
I typically like to have more time on roughs, so I’ll design each spread and decide what the color story will be for each. This way when I go to finals, I’ve got a good road map. But I always try to allow the final art to have its own say about where it’s going. I try and pay attention and not kill the energy. It’s a real challenge.
Henri’s mother allowed Henri to arrange the flowers and fruit she bought from the market. She also put bright, intricately patterned rugs, that the townpeople wove on the walls of their house. She pointed to the shifting colours of the pigeons they raised, in the light.
All of these colours, the play of light, the juxtaposition of everyday objects, the reds of the tapestries all found their way into Matisse’s paintings. Matisse would use these colours, lights, patterns, and movement in myriad ways in his art throughout his life. Running through it was all the lessons in art his mother kept giving him, never formally but always sharing and explaining to her young boy the joy and beauty in colour and light.
Lexile Measure: AD240L
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