Some Good Old-Fashioned Research

POSTED BY , ON April 06, 2010, 6 COMMENTS


It started with a quotation that can be found all over the internet, but with no evidence of a source: “It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else”—Henri Matisse. This sentence was proposed by the Art Institute’s ad agency as the basis for the campaign for Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917, a monumental exhibition that opened on March 20. The problem was that no one quite knew the source of the quote. And so the ad agency called me,  a librarian at the museum, to verify it. This proved to be a perfect example of how good old-fashioned research skills can be catapulted to a new level with the assistance of the internet, digitized books, and a great collection of print books.

One of the folks from the ad agency had found a similar Matisse quote in a book listed on He said it was followed only by a “#38,” referring to a footnote, and that the title of the book was The Unknown Matisse, which I had no problem finding in the Art Institute’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, the second largest art museum library in the country.

When I pulled the book, I saw that every chapter had a #38 footnote! I went through each chapter one at a time and luckily discovered the match early on—in chapter 3. That led me to a book of correspondence between Matisse and two of his patrons, Père Couturier and Rayssiguier.

The original quote in this book was from one of Couturier’s journal entries. He recorded a conversation with Matisse who told him “je croyais que je n’arriverais jamais a peindre, parce que je ne peignais pas comme les autres.” The second half was a good fit, but the first part was so different that I concluded our quote was coming from another Matisse line. Or perhaps this was something Matisse said many times in various ways. Still, I wanted to find a better match.

By searching for amalgamations of this quote online, I found a web page with snippets from a contemporary book, including this one: “Toute ma vie, je me suis senti traqué parce que je ne peignais pas comme les autres.” This perfect match gave me the language to start searching library databases and Google Books for the origin of the quote. I found two books in Google with the line—both by the same Père Couturier(!), including one owned by the library called Se Garder Libre. The full text was not available online, as the book is still in copyright, but I was able to pull it off the shelf, turn to the page referenced in Google, and discover Couturier quoting another conversation with Matisse where the artist had said the “Toute ma vie…” line.

The source was verified! Since the original is in French, the translation was done in-house, creating a slightly different quote than what we started with: “It has always bothered me that I don’t paint like everyone else.”

—Susan A., Head of Reader Services, Ryerson  Burnham Libraries

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6 Responses to “Some Good Old-Fashioned Research”

  1. Sami says:

    What I love about what you did is that you didn’t give up half way when you found something that *looked* like it might be the answer but kept digging for something more precise. Bravo!

  2. G says:

    I too appreciate the sleuthing and attention to detail. That’s as rare as an ugly Matisse these days. But with all respect, wouldn’t a better translation of a quote that starts with “Toute ma vie” begin in English with “All my life” ? It seems closer to the original and stronger.

    And for “je ne peignais pas comme les autres” what’s wrong with, “I didn’t paint like the others” ? It is also closer and may be stronger. “The others” – the other painters. We can imagine who he meant.

    I suppose translation too is an art.

  3. Katie R. says:


    Funny you should mention that! The quote we ended up using in our advertising was “It has bothered me all my life that I don’t paint like everyone else.” And you’re correct…translation is definitely an art.


  4. Actually, the translation of the alleged Matisse quote is not correct. “Je me suis senti traqué” does not mean “it has bothered me”, but well “I have felt trapped” (in the sense of a deer getting cornered by a pack of wolves with no escape possible).

  5. Karin says:

    That’s wonderful! Real detective work in action, and an inspiring example of using new technology together with finely honed research skills and determination.

  6. luc says:

    Also, “Je me suis senti traque” feels more oppressive than “bothered” to me…