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Henri Matisse’s Illustrations for Joyce’s Ulysses


The inspiring vision of an epic repeated in each of us every day.

In 1935, the painter, Henri Matisse, received a commission to illustrate an exclusive edition of the novel, Ulysses, by the Irishman, James Joyce. The edition was to consist of one thousand copies, signed by the artist and 250 of them signed by Joyce. When these books turn up on the market today, they generally start out at prices between $7,000 and $9,000 USD.

The book remains a cult object for art collectors and for followers of the legacy James Joyce. Among these is Maria Popova, who described the volume as “a glorious leather-bound tome with 22-karat gold accents, gilt edges, moire fabric endpapers, and a satin page marker.”

But one can’t really speak of a true collaboration between the painter and the writer, because while one of the first translations of the Ulysses had been into French, Matisse had not read the book he illustrated.

In the history of illustrated books – we think, for example, of Doré’s engravings of Don Quixote, images as a sort of visual translation of the literary universe onto the page. But for this edition of Ulysses, Matisse decided to go directly to one of Joyce’s sources: in Homer’s Odyssey.

While there is much talk of the greatness of Ulysses, the truth is that few adventurers conclude any careful reading of it. Pierre Bayard warned of something like this in his own book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. One can “feel perfectly comfortable when Ulysses comes up in conversation […] I know, for example, that it is a retelling of the Odyssey, that its narrative takes the form of a stream of consciousness, that its action unfolds in Dublin in the course of a single day, etc.”

In this sense, Matisse – who incidentally also illustrated an edition of Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil – had even an advantage over other Joyce non-readers: he was a Masterful draftsman. Relying directly on his own imaginative resources, his drawings are less literal illustrations to accompany Joyce’s words but rather a correlative, reinterpretation of Homer. In this sense, the Joyce text is accompanied, without having been interfered with and without limiting the possibility of readers’ interpretations of the book. In the manner of Buck Mulligan, the unanswered questions of Stephen Dedalus pose entirely new scenarios and landscapes.

Thus, the extravagance of this edition goes beyond it precise and careful publication: it’s not merely a luxury object for collectors, but a true piece of art, extended and taking the ancient Greek epic as its starting point. Striving in two ways, it is a journey – one with words, another through drawings – of a man’s return home.


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