The Limited Editions Club in America had commissioned French artist Henri Matisse to provide illustrations for a deluxe edition of Joyce’s Ulysses to be published in 1935. The etchings Matisse provided illustrated episodes from Homer’s Odyssey.
The Limited Editions Club was founded in 1929 by department-store magnate George Macy. Each year it produced deluxe editions of classic books, usually limited to just 1500 copies each. In February 1934 Macy contacted Henri Matisse through his son Pierre who had opened an art gallery in New York in 1931. Macy wanted to know if Matisse would illustrate a book for the Limited Editions Club: he suggested six books, including Joyce’s Ulysses, and offered Matisse $5000 for illustrations for one of them.
Around the same time, Macy got in contact with Joyce to propose the deluxe edition, and in response, Joyce set out his terms. Thanks to Bennett Cerf’s intervention, Macy increased his original offer to Joyce, and they agreed that Joyce was to be paid both for permission to reproduce Ulysses itself and for his signature on the colophon page of each copy of the edition. However, Joyce would not agree to sign all 1500 copies: instead, in June 1934 he agreed to sign just 250 copies.
Joyce was also anxious to meet Matisse to discuss his ideas for the illustrations. In a letter to a Dublin friend in August 1934, Joyce claimed that Matisse was familiar with the French translation of Ulysses but that he had never been to Ireland. Joyce thought that even if Matisse was only going to do human figures he would still need some guidance.
In fact, Matisse had not read Ulysses at all, in French or in English, though a copy of the French translation had been sent to him. He had also been sent a copy of Stuart Gilbert’s book about Ulysses, and it may be from this that he took the idea to illustrate episodes from Joyce’s Ulysses with corresponding scenes from Homer’s Odyssey. In August Stuart Gilbert sent a chart of the ‘Homeric correspondences’ to Paul Léon so it could be passed on to Matisse.
During the summer of 1934, Matisse met with Eugene and Maria Jolas, and discussed Ulysses with them. On 13 August, Joyce sent Matisse’s ideas to Frank Budgen, asking what he thought of them. Joyce, who was in Belgium at the time, was anticipating a phone-call that day from Matisse to discuss the proposals. After speaking to Matisse, Joyce wrote to Paul Léon asking him to write to Macy to say that he approved Matisse’s proposals, and Léon wrote accordingly to Macy on 16 August.
By the end of August, Macy too had agreed to the proposal to use illustrations of scenes from Homer, though he hoped Matisse would also be able to relate them to Joyce’s Ulysses. Matisse finished the illustrations by the end of November and sent them to Joyce, anxious to know his reaction. Joyce in turn sent the illustrations to Budgen in December, and asked him to show them also to his friend, the painter Louis Sargent, and to let him know what he thought.
The Limited Editions Club Ulysses was published on 22 October 1935 in an edition of 1500. The text used was that of the first Odyssey Press edition, edited by Stuart Gilbert, who also wrote an introduction in consultation with Joyce. Copies of the book were sold at $15 each for the 250 copies signed by Joyce and Matisse, and $10 each for those signed by Matisse alone, giving some idea of what Macy thought Joyce’s signature was worth! A separate portfolio of six of Matisse’s etchings was also produced in an edition of 150.
Joyce was pleased enough with the result to buy a number of copies of the book, even presenting his son and daughter-in-law with one as a Christmas present in 1935. In 1936, while negotiating with Allen Lane about publishing a limited edition of Ulysses in England, Joyce was hopeful that the Matisse illustrations would be incorporated into it, though in the end nothing came of the idea.