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'Matisse': as engaging to read as it is superb to look at

Matisse, by Pierre Schneider. Translated by Michael Taylor and Bridget Strevens Romer. New York: Rizzoli. 930 illustrations, 220 in color. 752 pp. $95.

A new book on Matisse is always welcome - but never so much so as when it lavishes as much attention on that artist's drawings as on his works in color. After all, we may know that Matisse was as magnificent with pencil and pen as he was with the brush, but proof, in the form of exhibitions and books, has always been in short supply.

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Pierre Schneider's ''Matisse'' does much to rectify this situation. More than half of its 930 illustrations are of drawings and sketches. Among them are examples from the artist's student days, preliminary studies, portraits, anatomical renderings, and a large number of his exquisitely simplified works in pen on paper. Of special importance are a number of linear images that prefigure his major works in oil, and that give essential clues to his often complex creative processes.

But there are other reasons to welcome this book. Its 220 color reproductions are excellent. They cover the full range of Matisse's work, from early landscapes, figure studies, and still lifes of the 1890s to the magnificent paper cutouts of his later years. It may be impossible to duplicate the exact hues and textural nuances of the originals, but the illustrations in this volume come remarkably close.

Credit should also go to whoever was responsible for the layout. Full-page and marginal illustrations relate attractively and intelligently to other pictorial material and to the text. The reader, as a result, can move easily and comfortably from the introductory chapter to the final biographical section with very little need to search for the text's accompanying illustrations a few pages beyond or to the rear of where he is reading. While this may not seem like a significant advantage, it is precisely that, in a book that runs to 752 very large pages and weighs roughly 8 pounds.

It is the text, however, that really dignifies this monumental study of Matisse and his work. Its author, one of the world's leading authorities on the artist, spent 14 years researching and then writing it, and, although he insists it is not a definitive analysis of the painter's production, it will undoubtedly be accepted as just that until an even more scholarly and detailed book on Matisse comes along.

Let me add, lest the word ''scholarly'' frighten potential readers away, that Schneider is no stuffy academic, but a writer who communicates important information and insights in a manner that, at times, comes very close to storytelling. His ability to evoke visual images with a few words and to distill complex ideas into two or three sentences makes him the ideal author for a book such as this. I personally found it very difficult to put down, and occasionally found myself pursuing an idea to the end of a chapter when I had intended merely to sample a paragraph or two. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Not only is it a superb picture book, with many paintings and drawings that have never been reproduced before, it is also an excellent and comprehensive study of one of this century's major painters.

Theodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic.

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