Brain Pickings

The Nature and Nurture of Genius: The Sweet Illustrated Story of How Henri Matisse’s Childhood Shaped His Creative Legacy

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A heartening testament to the nourishing power of parental love in the cultivation of greatness.

At 8PM on the last day of 1869, a little boy named Henri entered the world in a gray textile-mill town in the north of France, in a rundown two-room cottage with a leaky roof. He didn’t have much materially, but he was blessed with perhaps the greatest gift a child could have — an unconditionally loving, relentlessly supportive mother. Like many creative icons whose destinies were shaped by the unflinching encouragement of loved ones, little Henri became the great Henri Matisse thanks to his mother’s staunch support, which began with an unusual ignition spark: At the age of twenty, Henri was hospitalized for appendicitis and his mother brought him a set of art supplies with which to occupy his recovery. “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands,” Matisse recounted, “I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.” And that thing flowed from love, too — it was Matisse’s mother who encouraged her son, like E.E. Cummings encouraged all aspiring artists, to disregard the formal rules of art and instead paint from the heart. “My mother loved everything I did,” he asserted. Decades later, thanks to Gertrude Stein’s patronage, which catalyzed his career and sparked his friendship with Picasso, the world too would come to love what Matisse did.

In The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse (public library), writer Patricia MacLachlan and illustrator Hadley Hooper tell the heartening story of young Henri’s childhood and how it shaped his artistic path long before he began painting — how his mother, in an attempt to brighten the drab and sunless days, put bright red rugs on the floors and painted colorful plates to hang on the walls, letting little Henri mix the paints; how his father gave him pigeons, whose iridescent plumage the boy observed with endless fascination; how the beautiful silks woven by the townspeople beguiled him with their bright patterns.

With a gentle sidewise gleam, the story offers a nuanced answer to the eternal nature-versus-nurture question of whether genius is born or made. Embedded in it is a wonderful testament to the idea that attentive presence rather than praise is the key to great parenting, especially when it comes to nurturing young talent. (Indeed, such maternal presence is what legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom provided for many of the young authors and artists — including, most notably, Maurice Sendak — whom she nurtured over the course of her reign as the twentieth century’s greatest patron saint of children’s books.)

For a delightful touch of empathy via a twist of perspective, MacLachlan places the reader in little Henri’s shoes:

If you were a boy named Henri Matisse who lived in a dreary town in northern France where the skies were gray

And the days were cold

And you wanted color and light

And sun,

And your mother, to brighten your days,

Painted plates to hang on the walls

With pictures of meadows and trees,

Rivers and birds,

And she let you mix the colors of paint…

… And you raised Pigeons

Watching their sharp eyes
And red feet,

And their colors that changed with the light
As they moved…

… Would it be a surprise that you became
A fine painter who painted
Light
and
Movement

And the iridescence of birds?

Beneath the biographical particulars of the story itself is MacLachlan’s larger inquiry into the enduring question of whether artists draw what they see or what they feel and remember — Matisse’s life, she writes in the afterword, attests to the fact that the two are inextricably entwined: “He painted his feelings and he painted his childhood.”

Hooper’s illustrations are themselves a masterwork of artistry, scholarship, and creative ingenuity. She spent considerable time studying Matisse’s sensibility and colors in reproductions of his drawings, cutouts, and paintings, then researched textile patterns from the era of his childhood and even used Google Maps to picture the actual streets that he walked as a little boy. The result is not imitation but dimensional celebration. Hooper reflects on the unusual and inventive technique she chose:

I decided to try relief printing, which forced me to simplify my shapes and allowed me to focus on the color and composition. I cut the characters and backgrounds out of stiff foam and cardboard, inked them up, made prints, and scanned the results into Photoshop. The approach felt right.

The Iridescence of Birds is absolutely wonderful, in a way to which the screen does a great injustice. Complement it with other excellent picture-book biographies of luminaries, including those of Jane Goodall, Henri Rousseau, Pablo Neruda, Julia Child, Albert Einstein, and Maria Merian.

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Thoreau on Hard Work, the Myth of Productivity, and the True Measure of Meaningful Labor

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“Those who work much do not work hard.”

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) is the closest thing I have to a bible — I read it frequently and devotedly, always with great gratitude for the enduring wisdom that brings me closer to what I know to be true but so often forget. Indeed, Thoreau is among those rare luminaries whose ideas live on as resolutions of the most existential kind — be it his reflections on the creative benefits of keeping a diary or the spiritual rewards of walking or the only worthwhile definition of success.

Recently, while listening to a conversation with the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer — a Thoreau for our time — I was reminded once more of a particularly insightful passage from the journal as Palmer lamented that “the tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller and smaller tasks we’re going to take on.”

More than a century and a half before our modern malady of confusing productivity with purposefulness and the urgent with the important, Thoreau wrote in an entry from the last day of March in 1842:

The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.

In another entry from the fall of 1851, Thoreau touches on this again in reflecting on a neighbor he finds to be “the most poetical farmer,” one who embodies “the poetry of the farmer’s life”:

He does nothing with haste and drudgery, but as if he loved it. He makes the most of his labor, and takes infinite satisfaction in every part of it. He is not looking forward to the sale of his crops or any pecuniary profit, but he is paid by the constant satisfaction which his labor yields him.

Illustration from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

This philosophy of quality over quantity, of present labor over productive work, is also manifested on a meta level in the journal itself — Thoreau’s entries are usually short, always acutely insightful, and never belabored with vain excesses. He writes one December day:

I find that whatever hindrances may occur I write just about the same amount of truth in my Journal; for the record is more concentrated, and usually it is some very real and earnest life, after all, that interrupts. All flourishes are omitted.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau is indeed an infinitely rewarding read. Complement it with Thoreau on the spirit of sauntering, the greatest gift of growing old and a charming children’s book about his philosophy.

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Some Thoughts on Hope, Cynicism, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

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To live with sincerity in our culture of cynicism is a difficult dance — one that comes easily only to the very young and the very old. The rest of us are left to tussle with two polarizing forces ripping the psyche asunder by beckoning to it from opposite directions — critical thinking and hope.

Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.

Finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving the situation produces resignation — cynicism is both resignation’s symptom and a futile self-protection mechanism against it. Blindly believing that everything will work out just fine also produces resignation, for we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better. But in order to survive — both as individuals and as a civilization — and especially in order to thrive, we need the right balance of critical thinking and hope.

A plant needs water in order to survive, and needs the right amount of water in order to thrive. Overwater it and it rots with excess. Underwater it and it dries up inside.

I thought about this recently in observing my unease — my seething cauldron of deep disappointment — with an opinion piece commenting on Arianna Huffington’s decision to continue publishing necessary reporting on “what’s not working — political dysfunction, corruption, wrongdoing, etc.” but to begin giving more light to stories that embody the “perseverance, creativity, and grace” of which we humans are capable. The writer criticizing Huffington’s decision asserted, with ample indignation, that “to privilege happy stories over ‘unhappy’ ones is to present a false view of the world.”

Let’s consider for a moment the notion of an un-false view of the world — the journalistic ideal of capital-T truth. Let’s, too, put aside for now Hunter S. Thompson’s rather accurate assertion that the possibility of objectivity is a myth to begin with. Since the golden age of newspapers in the early 1900s, we’ve endured a century of rampant distortion toward the other extreme — a consistent and systematic privileging of harrowing and heartbreaking “news” as the raw material of the media establishment. The complaint which a newspaper editor issued in 1923, lamenting the fact that commercial interest rather than journalistic integrity determines what is published as the “news,” could well have been issued today — if anything, the internet has only exacerbated the problem.

The twentieth century was both the golden age of mass media and a century marked by two world wars, the Great Depression, the AIDS crisis, and a litany of genocides. Viewed through that lens, it is the worst century humanity has endured — even worse than the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages, for those deaths were caused by bacteria indifferent to human ideals and immune to human morality. This view of the twentieth century, then, is frightening enough if true, but doubly frightening if untrue — and Steven Pinker has made a convincing case that it is, indeed, untrue. Then, in a grotesque embodiment of Mark Twain’s wry remark that the worst things in his life never happened to him, we have spent a century believing the worst about ourselves as a species and a civilization.

Carl Sagan saw in books “proof that humans are capable of working magic.” The magic of humanity’s most enduring books — the great works of literature and philosophy — lies in the simple fact that they are full of hope for the human spirit. News has become the sorcerous counterpoint to this magic, mongering not proof of our goodness and brilliance but evidence of our basest capabilities.

A related point of cynicism bears consideration: Coupled with the assertion that giving positive stories more voice distorts our worldview was the accusation that Huffington’s motives were purely mercantile — a ploy to prey on Facebook’s algorithms, which incentivize heartening stories over disheartening ones. Could it be, just maybe, not that people are dumb and shallow, and algorithms dumber and shallower, but that we’ve endured a century of fear-mongering from the news industrial complex and we finally have a way of knowing we’re not alone in craving an antidote? That we finally have a cultural commons onto which we can rally for an uprising?

We don’t get to decry the alleged distortion of our worldview until we’ve lived through at least a century of good news to even the playing field so ravaged by the previous century’s extreme negativity bias.

As for Huffington, while we can only ever speculate about another person’s motives — for who can peer into the psyche of another and truly see into that person’s private truth? — this I continue to believe: The assumptions people make about the motives of others always reveal a great deal more about the assumers than the assumed-about.

This particular brand of cynicism is especially pronounced when the assumed-about have reached a certain level of success or public recognition. Take, for instance, an entity like TED — something that began as a small, semi-secret groundswell that was met with only warmth and love in its first few years of opening up to the larger world. And then, as it reached a tipping point of recognition, TED became the target of rather petty and cynical criticism. Here is an entity that has done nothing more nor less than to insist, over and over, that despite our many imperfections, we are inherently kind and capable and full of goodness — and yet even this isn’t safe from cynicism.

Let’s return, then, to the question of what is true and what is false, and what bearing this question has — if any — on what we call reality.

The stories that we tell ourselves, whether they be false or true, are always real. We act out of those stories, reacting to their realness. William James knew this when he observed: “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”

What storytellers do — and this includes journalists and TED and everyone in between who has a point of view and an audience, whatever its size — is help shape our stories of how the world works; at their very best, they can empower our moral imagination to envision how the world could work better. In other words, they help us mediate between the ideal and the real by cultivating the right balance of critical thinking and hope. Truth and falsehood belong to this mediation, but it is guided primarily by what we are made to believe is real.

What we need, then, are writers like William Faulkner, who came of age in a brothel, saw humanity at its most depraved, and yet managed to maintain his faith in the human spirit. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he asserted that the writer’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” In contemporary commercial media, driven by private interest, this responsibility to work in the public interest and for the public good recedes into the background. And yet I continue to stand with E.B. White, who so memorably asserted that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life”; that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Yes, people sometimes do horrible things, and we can speculate about why they do them until we run out of words and sanity. But evil only prevails when we mistake it for the norm. There is so much goodness in the world — all we have to do is remind one another of it, show up for it, and refuse to leave.

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