Ulysses, by James Joyce, Illustrations by Henri Matisse, Limited Editions Club (1935)

With near universal acclaim as the greatest work of Modernist literature, and possibly the greatest novel of the twentieth century, Ulysses, by James Joyce, deserves one other award…that being perhaps the least understood and most complicated novel ever written. Tough to read is an understatement. The extensive vocabulary used (over 30,000 distinct words in a novel of 265,000 words), the seemingly countless number of allusions and the often confusing stream-of-consciousness writing style results in a work that is an enigma, even to those who study it.

Joyce (1882-1941) took pride in the chaos and seeming lack of structure in this work, stating his pleasure at how this work would keep professors busy “for centuries” trying to figure out what he meant. I hate to be simplistic, but I do not have centuries to digest any one work, there is simply to much out there that is intellectually stimulating without being maddeningly near impossible to grok. One can surmise that the great modernist artist Henri Matisse also quickly appreciated the daunting and gargantuan task understanding this book entails, when one looks at the illustrations he provided to the Limited Editions Club (LEC) for their edition of Ulysses. As Thomas Craven, in the Quarto-Millenary says, “Matisse delivered to Mr. Macy a bundle of studio sweepings having no discoverable connection with anything in Homer or Joyce.

George Macy writes in the Quarto-Millenary that:

I have never been more greatly impressed with the mental facility of an artist than I was when I suggested to Matisse that he should illustrate Ulysses. He said, over the telephone, that he had never read it. I got Stuart Gilbert to send him a copy of Mr. Gilbert’s translation into French. The very next morning, M. Matisse reported that he had read the book, that he understood its eighteen episodes to be parodies of similar episodes in The Odyssey, that he would like to give point to this fact by making his illustration actually illustrations of the original episodes in Homer! I may have been taken in, of course. If I was not, it can surely be said that Henri Matisse grasped this book quicker than any other man ever did.

Of course Macy understood Matisse provided him with illustrations completely unrelated to the novel. Yet, Macy developed an approach for integrating the illustrations in a manner that actually does make ethereal sense, using the abstraction of both James and Matisse as the unifying theme. James Laver, also in Quarto-Millenary, points this out:

The etchings arrived…and proved to be a degree of abstraction which, however familiar it might be to students of Matisse’s draftsmanship, might well have proved a stumbling block to George Macy’s subscribers. Fortunately, Matisse has included in his parcel some twenty drawings made in preparation for the etchings and, as is usual in Matisse’s work, these begin almost  naturalistically and progress towards abstraction. Whereupon Mr. Macy had one of his strokes of genius. He saw in a flash that the drawings themselves were the best possible preparation for, and explanation of, the etchings; and he decided to reproduce the lot. The result is an exciting flash of insight into the mind of a master, and this flash of light illuminates Joyce also, for the problem of Ulysses itself is precisely a problem of the degrees of abstraction. The result was a book not only beautiful in itself but of the highest educational and cultural value.

I enjoy the drawings more than the finished etchings, though all are nicely done taken in isolation as groups of drawings. However, the confusion of the etchings and their relationship to the text, seems to carry over to the entire edition. The binding, the paper, the type…sometimes I think it wonderfully apropos while other days it borders on being a obfuscated mess. Perhaps Macy, in his genius, got it just right?

Of the 1,500 copies of this edition, about 250 are signed by both Joyce and Matisse. The remaining 1,250 are signed by Matisse alone. Thanks to Books and Vines reader Menno, we get some context as to why only 250 were signed by Joyce.

Joyce was initially pleased that an artist of Matisse’s stature was to illustrate Ulysses. But after some consideration, Joyce was worried that the Frenchman might not be familiar enough with the Irish terrain to do the job. He attempted to have a friend in Ireland send the artist an illustrated weekly from Dublin around 1904. When he discovered that Matisse had not even read the book, but instead depicted six episodes from Homer’s Odyssey, Joyce flew into a rage and refused to sign any more copies.

Tracking down a fine condition edition signed by both Matisse and Joyce can be done, but will cost you (typically) at least $25,000, making it by far the most expensive LEC to try to add to your collection. A fine condition edition signed by only Matisse looks like a relative bargain next to this, usually costing around $6,000 or so.

As an aside, for any who are thinking on embarking on Ulysses, supplementary explanatory material is a must. A couple Books and Vines readers have suggested The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires, published by Routledge, 3rd edition (1996) as an excellent resource used by Joycian scholars, as well as Stewart Gilbert’s ‘James Joyce’s Ulysses‘. A couple other readers have suggested ‘Ulysses Annotated‘ by Don Gifford with Robert Seidman.

About the Edition

  • Designed by George Macy
  • Illustrative etchings and drawings by Henri Matisse
  • Etchings pulled by Photogravure & Color Company, and lithographic drawings pulled by Duenewald Printing Corporation
  • Set in linotype Scotch Roman
  • Printed at The Printing-Office of The Limited Editions Club
  • Worthy special paper
  • Bound by George McKibbin & Son in full brown buckram, embossed in gold on spine and front cover from design by LeRoy H. Appleton
  • Introduction by Stuart Gilbert
  • 382 pages plus 26 illustration leaves, tipped in
  • 9″ x 11 3/4″
  • Limited to 1500 copies

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Slipcase Spine
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Slipcase Spine
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Spine and Cover
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Spine and Cover
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Cover
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Cover
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Spine
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Spine
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Cover
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Cover
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Side View Macro
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Side View Macro
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Copyright
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Copyright
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1 - Introduction
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1 – Introduction
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1 - Introduction
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1 – Introduction
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2 - Start of Book
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2 – Start of Book
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #2 - Start of Book
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #2 – Start of Book
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration Group #1, 1 of 4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration Group #1, 1 of 4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration Group #1, 1 of 4 Macro
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Illustration Group #1, 1 of 4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration Grouping 2 of 4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration Group #1, 2 of 4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration Grouping 3 of 4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration Group #1, 3 of 4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration Grouping 4 of 4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration Group #1, 4 of 4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration Group #2, #3 of 4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration Group #2, #3 of 4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration Group #2, #4 of 4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #4
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #5
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #5
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
Ulysses, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

12 thoughts on “Ulysses, by James Joyce, Illustrations by Henri Matisse, Limited Editions Club (1935)

  1. Perhaps interesting to add is the story why Jocye only signed 250?

    Joyce was initially pleased that an artist of Matisse’s stature was to illustrate Ulysses. But after some consideration, Joyce was worried that the Frenchman might not be familiar enough with the Irish terrain to do the job. He attempted to have a friend in Ireland send the artist an illustrated weekly from Dublin around 1904. When he discovered that Matisse had not even read the book, but instead depicted six episodes from Homer’s Odyssey, Joyce flew into a rage and refused to sign any more copies.

    1. Prior to my knowledge of this LEC, I had read a couple of statements by Joyce where he explicitly states that he did not want Ulysses to be illustrated at all. He wanted the uniquely-formatted text to totally control the visual impact of the novel. So you can imagine my surprise when I learned that Joyce was semi-involved in the production of this LEC and even signed some of the copies. Aside from his disgust with Matisse’s total lack of effort in reading the book (as a reader of Ulysses, I can tell you that it is an absolute impossibility to finish the entire book in one evening as Matisse claimed), I’ve also heard that he only signed 250 volumes because of his very poor eyesight. 250 was all that he was able to manage in that sitting for which Macy paid him $5 per signature. So, comically, it appears that Mattise just pulled those illustrations out of his arse. After this experience, Joyce must have reconfirmed to himself his decision to request the book not be added to in any way. He didn’t even want introductions, let alone illustrations. He was incensed that Random House ignored his no-intros rule for their first U.S. edition. I’m glad to have the Woolsey court ruling and original intro though. It adds a certain anti-censorship mystique to the book. The ‘story’ of Ulysses’ publication is a riveting tale all on its own.

  2. My mind is blown, Chris. This is an amazing LEC. As someone who loves modernist art and authors, all of the design and illustration elements appeal to me. The globe/clock on the cover is just a captivating image. It will be some time until I can afford a Matisse-signed copy, but I definitely want this in my collection.

    The Ulysses Annotated book is pretty good, but I would second dlphcoracl’s recommendation of The New Bloomsday Book and also put forward Stewart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses. Gilbert’s book was actually written under Joyce’s supervision and is the ultimate guidebook. These are really the two most popular titles amongst Joycean scholars. I have used them extensively and have found them to be essential to ‘completing the picture’ of Ulysses.

    Is that foxing on the text-block edges or speckling (or perhaps both)?

  3. Fine post. I have never really yearned to own this LEC–not only because I find it vastly overpriced, but because there are plenty of books that are more meaningful to me. I find Ulysses, like much 20th century music and art, too overdone: rather like an over-manicured garden where nothing has been left to chance in the artist’s relentless pursuit for total control. Now to many that may seem like the highest goal of art, but I prefer art and literature that has an easier grace.

    For me, in addition to the printing (at the LEC’s own personal press–making it a rarity), the true glory of this book is the binding. Were it more affordable, I would buy it for the binding alone.

  4. Another excellent guide to reading James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is:

    The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires, published by Routledge, 3rd edition (1996).

Leave a Reply