Matisse’s Amours: Illustrations of Pierre de Ronsard’s Love Poems

“I don’t distinguish between the making of a book and a painting,” said Henri Matisse of the construction of his monumental Florilège des Amours de Ronsard (Anthology of Ronsard’s Love Poems). Indeed, Matisse’s “Poems of Ronsard” showcases the qualities found in his best painting. One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Matisse created lyrical, decorative experiments in color and design that changed the course of art; these very characteristics resonate throughout his illustrated books.

Matisse’s Amours: Illustrations of Pierre de Ronsard’s Love Poems presents a selection of lithographs from this exceptional but rarely considered livre d’artiste. What began in 1941 as a simple portfolio of 30 lithographs turned into a seven-year project culminating in the 128-page Florilège des Amours de Ronsard. This immense undertaking was made all the more extraordinary as Matisse not only illustrated the text but also selected the poems (which he updated from their 16th-century French), conceived the layout, chose the typeface and even designed and decorated the cardboard box in which the volume was packed.

Ronsard (1524–1585), deemed the father of French lyric poetry and credited with facilitating the modernization of the French language, explored playfully erotic themes in poems that were exceedingly well-suited to the interests of the French painter. As a result, the lithographs feature many of Matisse’s most familiar subjects—dancers, portraits of women, floral motifs and music. A profound harmony exists between the painter’s sinuous renderings and Ronsard’s lyric verse, and this exhibition provides a rare opportunity to view a work of considerable import from Matisse’s late career.