Brain Pickings

Henri Matisse’s Rare 1935 Etchings for James Joyce’s Ulysses


A 22-karat creative cross-pollination.

Bloomsday — the world’s foremost holiday of talking about books you haven’t read — may come and go, but a rare gem calls for extending the Joyce-related celebrations a little while longer. In 1935, American publisher George Macey offered the great Henri Matisse $5,000 to create as many etchings as this budget would afford for a special illustrated edition of Ulysses. Joyce was thrilled that an artist of Matisse’s stature would illustrate his masterwork, but worried the artist might not actually read the book, which confounded even Carl Jung. His fears were justified — Matisse turned in drawings based on six episodes from Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, evidently having assumed that Joyce’s masterwork was also based on the ancient Greek hero Odysseus, known as Ulysses in Roman mythology.

After Open Culture flagged the book, I gathered up my year’s worth of lunch money and was able to grab one of the last copies available online — a glorious leather-bound tome with 22-karat gold accents, gilt edges, moire fabric endpapers, and a satin page marker. The Matisse drawings inside it, of course, are the most priceless of its offerings — doubly so because, for all their beauty, they’re a tragicomedy of quasi-collaboration. Enjoy.

Complement this rare and unusual edition with Salvador Dalí’s little-known Alice in Wonderland illustrations.

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