Serenity Through the Significance of Ideas

Started: 1899
Ended: 1908

Luxe, Calme et Volupte by Henri Matisse, 1904. Oil on canvas. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, France

The first movement in modern art of the 20th century, the examples of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, and Georges Seurat inspired Fauvism. A loosely allied group of French painters with shared interests the Fauves, including Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, and Albert Marquet, had been pupils of Gustave Moreau and admired the emphasis on personal expression. Matisse emerged as the leader of the group, with its members sharing the use of intense colour as a vehicle for depicting light and space, redefining pure colour and form as a means of expressing the artist’s emotional state. Fauvism is an important precursor to Cubism, Expressionism, and the future modes pf abstraction.

Fauvism’s major contribution to modern art was the radical goal of separating colour from its descriptive, representational purpose and allowing colour to exist as its own element. Colour became a projection of mood and structure within a work without having a true connection to the natural world. The central Fauvist artistic concern was balance of the composition. Simplified forms and saturations of colour drew attention to the flatness of the canvas or paper giving an immediate impression of strength and unification to a work. Above all Fauvists embraced the individual expression of the artist, the direct experience between artist and subject, the emotional response and intuition all held more weight than academic theory or elevated subject matter.

The River Seine at Chatou by Maurice de Vlaminck, 1906. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

In the beginning of the 20th century the Post-impressionist artists working in France, including Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Seurat, were considered avant-garde. Collectively, their experimentations in paint application, subjects, expressive lines and colour were advances that fed the beginnings of Fauvism. Another important factor was Symbolism and its emphasis on the internal vision of the artist. The European reassessment of African sculpture as art and not anthropological curios introduced new ideas of form and representation.

Matisse is considered the founding artist of Fauvism. He and many of his contemporaries were greatly influenced by the Moreau’s teaching of personal expression being among the key attributes of a great painter. Matisse also considered the techniques and systemic visual language of Pointillism, spearheaded by Georges Seurat, Henri-Edmond Cross, and Paul Signac, to be important. His observation of technique led to the development of colour structure using large, flat areas of colour to establish a deliberate and decorative effect and sense of mood. Matisse was also aware of the Post-Impressionists Paul Gauguin and Édouard Vuillard and their departure from the momentary effect of Impressionism to the integration of colour and design. Amalgamating all these concepts and ideas, Matisse turned away from subtle hues of mixed paint and worked with bright colours direct from the tube as a means of depicting emotions. His travels to Corsica and the South of France in 1898 increased his desire to capture strong natural light.

Yacht at Le Havre Decorated with Flags by Raoul Dufy, 1905. Oil on canvas. Musée d’art moderne Andre Malraux, Le Havre, France

At the same time Matisse was experimenting with Post-Impressionist techniques, the painters André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck met and began sharing a studio in Chatou, a suburb of Paris, and together developed a mutual interest in direction brushwork and bold colour. Matisse met Derain in 1899, and de Vlaminck in 1901, being the older and more established artist he encouraged them and introduced them to prospective dealers.

The Salon d’Automne exhibition was held at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1901. Matisse, de Vlaminck, and Derain exhibited works in the show; other students of Moreau joined them, including Albert Marquet and Henri Manguin. The paintings were distinctive in their use of vivid colours and spontaneous brushwork. Marquet exhibited a traditional style Italianate bust and its proximity to the garishly coloured and energetic paintings prompted the critic Louis Vauxcelles to describe the scene as ‘Donatello parmi les fauves,’ thus the term Fauves was coined for the artists.

At the Circus (The Mad Clown) by Georges Rouault, 1907. Oil on cardboard. Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA

Many of the Fauves enjoyed commercial success following the 1905 Salon d’Automne despite hostility from the critics. Their art was also featured at additional exhibits, notably at the Salon des Indépendants in 1907, where a large room dubbed ‘The Fauves’ Den’ was the main attraction. Other artists began to join the central trio of Matisse, Derain, and de Vlamink, including Othon Fiesz, Kees van Dongen, Georges Braque, Georges Rouault, and Raoul Dufy.

The Fauves were preoccupied with colour as a means of personal expression. Colour and the combining of colours formed the intrinsic subject, form, and rhythm of their work. A sky could be orange, a tree could be pink, a face a combination of clashing colours; the resulting painting was an independent product of the artist’s perception, rather than an accurate depiction of the original subject. Compositional elements of a painting were built up through the placement of colour rather than draftsmanship or perspectival systems.

The Red Studio by Henri Matisse, 1911. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

With their shared preoccupation with expression through colour and form the Fauvism artists were less concerned with any novelty of their subject matter. Unlike the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists the Fauves took traditional subjects as their starting points. They drew their subject matter from the world around them and included portraits, landscapes, seascapes, and figures in interiors however, the impact of colour composition took predominance over any symbolism or narrative. Their chosen subject were vehicles of observation and painting, active brushwork and non-naturalistic colour was the means of bringing the viewer into their creative journeys.

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