Fauvism owes its name to the critic Louis Vauxcelles who, wishing to characterise the audacity of certain paintings displayed at the 1905 Salon d'automne, called the room where they were grouped a "cage aux fauves" (a wild-beast cage). The term Fauve applied to several painters active during the first half of the 20th century (Matisse, Friesz, Derain, Rouault, Dufy, Marquet, Vlaminck, Camoin, Puy, Manguin) who reacted against the analytical methods of Impressionism; they often ringed objects in black and juxtaposed pure tones. They substituted intellectual naturalism (yellow sky, red trees) for visual naturalism. They were of course rebelling against the academic realism taught them by their professors (with the exception of Gustave Moreau). As Matisse wrote: "The expressive aspect of colour imposes itself upon me purely by instinct." Thus we encounter once again, now revolving around the all-importance of colour, Gauguin's Pont-Aven theories on colour composition and the fundamentally subjective nature of the act of painting, as well as the consequences deriving from his ideas: simplification of means, rejection of perspective, chiaroscuro, shading-off, relief and broken tones, and the utilisation of nature to suggest a personal language
A Fauvist technique was evolved, but varied from painter to painter. Nor, properly speaking, did they share a common spiritual outlook. Unlike the Nabis, they showed scant interest in cotemporary cultural and literary trends. In the main they came from middle-class backgrounds, their cultural horizon was limited, and even their knowledge of the history of art was unsystematic, or at least their keenness to be acquainted with it differed: Matisse and Derain studied the old masters but, Vlaminck boasted of never having set foot inside the Louvre. Fauvism was hardly the logical putting into practice of an artistic doctrine; it was more n encounter between a number of painter who shared certain views; Fauvism acquired its special flavour en route , as it were. These views were of course already present in their predecessors’ work. The initial impetus of the Fauves stemmed from their admiration for Van Gogh (the famous retrospective exhibition of his work took place at Bernheim Jeune in 1901), Gauguin (a retrospective exhibition coincided with the 1906 Salon d’Automne), Signac, the Neo-Impressionists, and Cezanne, whose last forlorn painting held immense appeal for them. What they found particularly interesting were the colures used by the preceding generation, especially their regal, unadulterated use of pure tone. Pure colours were used to convey form, light and local colour simultaneously. By and large the Fauves set out to convey sensuousness and can therefore be compared with the Impressionists, whom almost without exception, they imitated at first. Although the Fauves freely used the terms “instinct” and “spontaneity” they did not imply that when recreating sensation they overlooked the distancing necessary for the act of creation. Admittedly the distancing process varied following the reflective capacities pf each painter; Vlaminck’s work, for example, which was a projection of his aggressive and domineering nature, differs fundamentally from that of Matisse who never hesitated to recompose a sensation, sometimes to the point of substituting unrealistic colours purely for decorative and harmonic reasons. Fauvism therefore fulfilled an attitude rather than a precise doctrine; hence its shirt-lived militancy and swift dispersal after 1908. Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Marquet, Dufy, Braque (in his early work), Camoin, Puy and Manguin were its main exponents. The epithet “Fauvism” was not chosen by a consensus of its adherents, in the way the Nabis chose theirs. It was at the 1905 Salon d’Automne that the critic Lois Vauxcelles , noticing two sculptures in the Florentine manner executed by Marquet which were in display in the room reserved for the work of Matisse and his colleagues , pointed to them and exclaimed: “Donatello among the wild beasts!”. But the term was apt in the sense that it designated a certain atmosphere which stemmed from several options rather than referring to a well–defined doctrine – something the movement never worked out. It was chiefly by their conception of expression that the Fauves were distinguishable from general close –of-the-century trends. The problem - the relationship between freedom of pictorial technique and the ideal it had to embody - vanished with Fauvism. The absolute supremacy of the picture , in itself an origin and an end – since the painter exposes himself to the world through it and for its sake – explains the violence associated with the notion of Fauvism ever since. It was certainly a sign of the painter in revolt; having once discovered the extent of his powers, he overthrows the tyrannical constraint of tradition; he intends to use common vision as he pleases and in the most provocative manner possible the better to assert his sovereignty. The Fauves, therefore, took over where Gauguin and Van Gogh left off, each in his own way personally challenging and still attempting to grasp the absolute in the exercise of their art.
The artists of the Group
Matisse arrived in Paris 1892 and enrolled for evening classes at the Ecole des arts decoratifs. In 1893 he became a pupil of Gustave Moreau. He exhibited work at the Societe nationale des beaux-arts in 1897. The State bought one of his canvases – it seemed a good start to an official career. At this period his painting had nothing truly revolutionary about: everyday or intimist subjects, close attention to light, shrewdly and carefully observed values. His style altered, however , in 1898 for his temporary mentor, Pissarro, had advised him to study Turner’s canvases at the Louvre. Recurrent tones of chrome, emerald and madder began to heighten the overall colour schemes of his canvases. In 1899 this emancipated and Impressionistic use of colour was succeeded , due to Cezanne’s prevailing influence, by a period during which Matisse concentrated upon the problems of structure , resolving them in the same way as Cezanne by closely studying tonal relationships. Yet during this period his palette still remained rather muted. In June 1904 he went to Saint-Tropez where he met Signac and Cross, who introduced him to Neo-Impressionism, a discipline he flirted with briefly. However Divisionism experience was crucial for Matisse, and induced him to compose one of his first masterpieces, a set of nudes on a beach entitled Luxe, Calme et Volupte. After 1905 Matisse dismissed Neo-Impressionist theory and gradually renounced blobs in favour of daubs. Now he entered upon his Fauvist period proper, which lasted until about 1912, when with the aid of Cubism he concentrated on a more resolutely abstract style.
Marquet was Matisse’ fellow-pupil at L’Ecole des arts decoratifs, who again caught up with him at Gustave Moreau’s studio. Lake Matisse, Marquet followed Moreau’s advice: he visited art galleries and sketched in the street. Then in 1899 they were both to be seen working in the Jardins du Luxembourg and at Arcueil, and in 1900 they were both responsible for festooning the ceiling of Le Grand Palais. In 1901 they exhibited at the Salon d’Automne, and in 1906 came Marquet’s turn to make the pilgrimage to Saint-Tropez. However Marquet’s style, which quickly gained assurance, once self-assured changed hardly at all, only offers a watered-down version of Fauvism. Apart from some robust nudes and portraits, which glow with an amazing sense of suggestion and paraphrase, much of Marquet’s work consists of soundly constructed landscapes and Paris – where the subject if reduced to bare essentials. However Marquet always found a precedent for his powerful syntheses in nature itself, and his renewal of style stemmed more from subject matter than from manner.
Vlaminck was frantically individualistic that any and every constraint angered him: schools of art regimentation, culture. Understandably therefor he had no time for the teachings of the Beaux-Arts. Such attitude contravened the balance between personal vision and intrinsic demands of painting which Matisse so superbly established. Vlaminck flung himself into elementary subjectivity; he wished to translate sensations instantaneously. Moreover between 1901, the year in which he discovered Van Gogh whom he extravagantly claimed he loved better than his own father , and 1907 when he felt the influence of Cezanne, his sheer instinct as a painter managed to achieve several of the most meaningful canvases in the while of Fauvism. Portraits, interiors and landscapes claimed Vlaminck’s attention. He used pure colours straight out of the tube, and for preference the three primaries, red, yellow and blue. Hid oils are thickly daubed , mainly in stubby lines and squiggles, and outlines, are ringed with coloured lines. Such rapid and rudimentary execution was excellently suited to his feverish temperament. Vlaminck’s brand of Fauvism had an Expressionist slant to it.
In 1908 he was the painter with whom the “Brucke” movement in Germany sought contact. Since his youth was spent in Holland , he was always to retain his love for Van Gogh, as well as his own gift for observation and character exploration . He began in the Impressionist school, but its ascendance soon faded when he went to Paris and plunged wholeheartedly into the world of Montmartre. His draughtsmanship, exercised in the same closed milieu which had already inspired Forain and Toulouse–Lautrec – he used to work for the Assiette au Beurre, sketching portraits at the open-air café tables. Now he was ready to join the Fauves, with whom he can properly be identified between 1906 and 1912. Like the Fauves he concentrated exclusively in his portraits on clowns , danseuses and nudes, painted in bright , almost crude colours and convulsed tone contrasts. For him city life, the world of fashion and the demi-monde held more appeal than landscapes.
Derain generally coupled with Vlaminck with whom he founded the so-called Chatou group, rather a scanty “group” since it only comprised two founders, who both lived in this small suburban town as a result of an acquaintance begun in 1900 in an almost empty compartment of a Paris train. Although it is true to say that for a while Derain diligently teamed up with Vlaminck, it is also true that he was equally involved with Matisse, whose influence was just as strong as cross-examining his style and methods. Half–way between him was Derain, passionately fond of painting but incapable of controlling his talent and from the very first in need of others’ example and advice: Monet , Signac, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Lautrec and the Nabis too. He possessed extraordinary virtuosity; his early fragmented manner, Divisionist-influenced, evolved towards outlining and smooth daubs oranges , vermilions and pinks. During 1904 to 1908 , first at Collioure then in London, Derain painted some of the most accomplished Fauvist paintings. Yet, finding himself incapable of further progress within Fauvism, he deserted the group and embarked on a new venture which eventually led him to the threshold of Cubism.
In 1900 Dufy arrived in Paris accompanied by Braque and , at the Ecole des beaux-arts , caught up with Othon Friesz who had been living in the capital since 1898. This trio from Le Havre rallied to the Fauvist movement, and their contribution to it was destined to be of unrivalled importance. Dufy’s first masters were the Impressionist, and to a greater degree than the other Fauves he remained faithful to their spirit, never wearying of extolling the pleasures of the moment and the present in all their various aspects. From 1900 t o1904 Dufy was busy transposing external appearances in to canvas. Being more inclined to amuse himself with what gave him pleasure than totally abandon himself to it , his draughtsmanship gradually became more mordant , tending towards abridgement rather than transcription; as a colourist he appears more ponderous and deliberate that the Impressionists whose Divisionist manner he never adopted. Having successively analysed sensations then reconstituted and transposed them on to canvas Dufy quite naturally collided with the Fauves.
Braque undoubtedly owed his participation in Fauvism to the older painter. But he yielded to it in a different spirit ; whist he liked pure colures and bright tones even though his palette was characteristically restrained , his manner was more methodical, more attentive to summary and synthesis and stressed structural rather than decorative effect in composition. His art was therefore fated to evolve towards Cezannesque objectivity, then cubism.
Essential History of Art, Bath , 2001. Jalard, Michel-Claude: Post-Impressionism, Paris, 1966.
Shone, Richard: The Post-Impressionism, London, 1979.