THE AMATEUR: An Independent Life of Letters
by Wendy Lesser. Pantheon. 274 pp.$24
Pablo Picasso. Reading this splendid book, we know how the story will end, yet Spurling, a British critic and biographer, makes us doubt the outcome. Her account of the adversity the young Matisse endured—financial, critical, physical, psychological—is so persuasive that, time and again, we expect him to renounce his vocation and find another career.
The eventual master of luxuriant, voluptuous color was born into the cold, dank world of French Flanders, near the Belgian border, and spent the first quarter of his...