Henri Matisse Illustrates James Joyce’s Ulysses

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Back in the mid-1930s, George Macey, an American publisher, approached the celebrated painter Henri Matisse and asked him how many etchings he could provide for $5,000. Although it’s widely believed that Matisse never read Joyce’s sprawling classic (despite being provided a French translation of the text), he did come back with 26 full-page illustrations, all of them based on six themes from Homer’s Odyssey, the epic poem that Ulysses consciously plays upon. In 1935, an illustrated edition of Ulysses was printed. Matisse signed 1500 copies; Joyce only 250. And today a copy signed by both artists will run you a cool $30k. Buy, hey, the shipping is only $6.

James Joyce’s Ulysses for auction at PBA Galleries

James Joyce’s Ulysses from the Limited Editions Club, 1935, with illustrations by Henri Matisse.

Rare Book Finds: ““It was a great idea to bring them together; celebrities of the same generation, of similar virtuosity” – Monroe Wheeler on the Joyce-Matisse Ulysses

George Macy’s decision to commission Henri Matisse to illustrate Ulysses was a bold move for his fledgling Limited Editions Club in 1935. Scandal still swirled around James Joyce’s masterpiece, which had been banned in the United States until 1933. In preliminary conversation with Macy, Matisse confessed to not having read Ulysses; Macy provided him with a French translation. “The very next morning, M. Matisse reported that he had read the book, that he understood its eighteen episodes to be parodies of similar episodes in the Odyssey, that he would like to give point to this fact by making his illustrations actually illustrations of the original episodes in Homer!” (Macy).
Matisse created 26 beautiful full-page illustrations, including six soft-ground etchings – his only use of that particular medium. Macy had planned for 1500 copies of the work to be produced and signed by both author and illustrator. Matisse signed all 1500, but legend has it that when Joyce realized that Matisse had been working from Homer’s Odyssey rather than his novel, he refused to sign any more than the 250 or so that he had already signed – making double-signed copies of this lavish illustrated edition very scarce.”

See some illustrations from the book.

James Joyce’s Ulysses Documentary

Taken from a series called “Great Modern Writers”, this playful documentary introduces James Joyce’s most famous work “Ulysses”. It includes fantastic adaptations to film from passages of the novel. It also includes excerpts from a book written by Joyce’s friend, the artist Frank Budgen, entitled “James Joyce and the making of Ulysses”. Amongst those interviewed is author Anthony Burgess.