Matisse & A.S. Byatt: On Art In Literature


Woman With a Hat, Henri Matisse (1905)
San Francisco Museum of Art

So many works of fiction either focus centrally on art (think A.S. Byatt’s “The Matisse Stories”) and others weave it into the plot in nuanced ways (Susan Sontag’s “The Volcano Lover”). The Matisse Stories is a compilation of three stories, and in each a woman’s life is touched by the paintings of Henri Matisse. It’s been referred to as a “still life” of ordinary women: a teacher who must psycho-analyze her self-absorbed hairdresser while staring at a Matisse on the wall in his salon, a housekeeper with a passion for knitting (right under the nose of two arrogant artist employers), and a professor discussing his affair with an art student.

Byatt doesn’t overly describe the Matisse paintings that were the inspirations for these stories. In fact, she provides little description of them, which propels the reader to look up the works, to study them independently, wonder why she chose these particular paintings as the stories’ muses. And then, once the reader has done that, the story seems to go on and on and on, as the reader compares and contrasts the art to the plot points, the characters, the setting. It, therefore, makes these short stories seem like long, delicious novels.

The stories, at points, feel light and airy, and then deep and intricate. Characters evolve. Plots take a turn.

Grabbing snippets of Matisse’s “world views” here and there throughout the stories, you start to wonder about his character, how his ideas and views fit into all of this, how they inspired it. How, as an ordinary woman — like the women in these stories — would he influence my life? What about his infatuation with color? With his supposed repression of women? You ask him to pull up a chair and discuss.

We can only imagine.



  1. Great choice… Byatt is a super writer. And Woman With a Hat was one of Henri Matisse’s landmark paintings.

    For art historians, I suppose the fact that Byatt does not overly describe the Matisse paintings is a great joy. The only issue is … a reader would have to be fairly motivated to go and look up the works himself, to study them independently.

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