Published in November 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 1868, Degas painted a husband-and-wife portrait of Édouard and Suzanne Manet, he reclining on a couch, she playing the piano. Degas gave the painting to his friend, only for Manet, inexplicably, to put a knife through it and excise the right-hand third—including half of Suzanne’s body and all of her instrument. On Degas’s death, 50 years later, the slashed painting would be found, prominently displayed, at his home. This is one of many anecdotes told in the highly readable new book by art critic Sebastian Smee, on four “friendly rivalries” that changed the course of modern art: Henri Matisse vs Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock vs Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon vs Lucian Freud, and Édouard Manet vs Edgar Degas.
Smee’s argument is that these relationships didn’t fit the cliché of sworn enemies slugging it out for art-world supremacy, but instead showed “yielding, intimacy and openness to influence” inspiring the respective parties to great heights. He is a natural storyteller, and the tension he generates in the Matisse-Picasso chapter in particular— jump-cutting between the pair as they create masterpiece after masterpiece in Paris, from 1907 to 1911—is novelistic.
The chief problem with the book, though, is the reductive similarity he sees between all four rivalries: in each case, one artist is methodical and technically gifted, the other impulsive and instinctive; in each case, one is senior, the other playing catch-up. Given the complex—not to mention, brilliant—nature of the indiv…