Imagine a gallery with a stunning collage displayed on each wall. Two famous figures, wrestling fiercely, come into focus in every mural. You can’t tell who is winning, and you can’t stop staring. Sebastian Smee’s book delivers that experience. The art critic for The Boston Globe had the inspired idea of exploring four fraught friendships that helped fuel eight great painters’ “very modern yearning to be unique, original, inimitable.” His brilliant group biography is one of a kind too.
Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon; Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas; Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso; Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock—Smee’s cast of characters led lives almost as rule-defying as the canvases they churned out or agonized over. For one in each pair, audacity seemed to come more easily. Impetuous Picasso wasn’t about to be Matisse’s acolyte, but a “pattern … of yielding, twisting, overcoming, and yielding once more” propelled them both. A rival’s influence kept all these painters fruitfully off balance.
In their quests for unprecedented greatness, who better to serve as goad and guide than a fellow artist on his own arduous quest? Bacon liked to say his portraiture aimed to capture “the pulsations of a person.” Revealing these rare creators as the invaluable catalysts they also were, Smee conveys exactly that on page after page.