André Derain - Biography and Legacy
French Painter, Writer, Set Designer, Illustrator, and Sculptor
Biography of André Derain
André Derain was born in the Parisian suburb of Chatou. He grew up in a middle-class family. His father worked as a pastry chef and served as a municipal councilor.
Derain received a traditional education at Saint-Croix in Le Vesinet, and then attended the Lycee Chaptal in Paris. He began studies in engineering at the Ecole des Mines in Paris but left the program in 1898. Derain recalled his formative education as being a miserable experience: "The teachers, ushers and pupils were a far more bitter memory for me than the darkest hours of my military career." Despite his disinterest in school, he excelled at drawing and won an award for it in 1895.
Maurice de Vlaminck and Henri Matisse are often credited with Derain's decision to leave school and pursue a career in the arts yet this is not the case. Derain showed a precocious talent for drawing and painting from age fifteen, at which time he and his friend Le Noe began artistic studies with Father Jacomin and his sons. He remained in his studio until 1898, at which point he entered the Paris studio of the Symbolist painter Eugene Carriere. Derain met Matisse when the elder painter arrived at the same studio a few months later. Although Matisse is considered to have been Derain's teacher because he was eleven years his senior, their relationship was more of a collaboration.
Derain also met Vlaminck soon after entering Carriere's studio and the two became fast friends. Apparently Derain's parents discouraged the relationship between their son and this "bohemian anarchist" and he was banned from their household. When Derain sought Vlaminck's critique he would hang his painting outside of the window of his house for his friend to see.
Derain and Vlaminck reportedly shared models as well as mistresses. "They shocked the inhabitants of Chatou by their behavior-when they returned from Montmartre after an evening out ostentatiously mounted in a fiacre in the company of two prostitutes decked with distinctive boas."
Derain was known for his rebellious attitude. Once, at the Louvre, he painted a version of Ghirlandaio's Bearing the Cross, which offended the attendants who, after a scuffle, threw him out of the museum.
His early artistic career was put on hold when he was called up for military service in 1902. While unable to produce many works during this period, he remained in touch with Vlaminck, writing him often on the subject of art. The comments he makes regarding his new stylistic interests, key points in the development of Fauvism, significantly indicates his part in developing the movement, independent of that of Matisse.
After completing his military service, Derain spent the summer of 1905 working with Matisse in Collioure. That same year he joined him and a group of other friends in exhibiting at the Salon d'Automne in Paris. There, work was collected in a space that art critic Louis Vauxcelles famously called the 'Gage aux Fauves' (Cage of Wild Beasts). While the term was meant to mock the artists' work as childlike, and to degrade their value, Derain still managed to sell four of his exhibited paintings. Soon afterward, Matisse introduced Derain to Ambrose Vollard, who bought the contents of his studio, giving him the means to continue his career.
Derain's Fauvist paintings are his best-known and include landscapes and portraits characterized by intense colors and simplified, decorative forms. At this point in his career, he believed Fauvism was the answer to his search for a permanent artistic form.
In 1907 he moved to Montmartre and spent time at Le Bateau-Lavoir, where many well-known 20th-century artists, including Picasso, resided. Once there, he married Alice Prense, who was described as a laid back, beautiful woman and was nicknamed "La Vierge" (the Holy Virgin). Apparently her personality was quite different from that of Derain. Picasso's mistress described him as: "Slim, elegant, with a lively color and enameled black hair. With an English chic, somewhat striking. Fancy waistcoats, ties in crude colors, red and green. Always a pipe in his mouth, phlegmatic, mocking, cold, an arguer."
Later that year Derain went to Avignon with Picasso. Again, as with Matisse and Vlaminck earlier, it is thought that Picasso influenced Derain's change in style. But in fact, Derain showed an interest in Cubism's geometric aspect while in London earlier that year, before the trip to Avignon, and his fascination with African masks, which he described as "amazing, wildly expressive," began with those he saw there in the Negro Museum. Although the artist's exploration of Cubism was short-lived and is sometimes overlooked, Derain continued to work alongside Braque and Picasso until 1910. At that time his views on Cubism changed and he rejected their vision and what he'd at first admired, writing: "Cézanne disturbs me. His efforts to achieve perfection are incompatible with the liberty of human thought. He has been searching for the absolute, which inhibits the natural flowering of life. Over-indulgence in reality spells death."
By 1913 Derain had returned to his search for esoteric knowledge, and began to work in what might be called a "gothic style," characterized by an ascetic use of color and a mixture of Romanesque, Byzantine, and Cubist formal elements. His exploration of this particular style would later influence the Italian group known as the Valori Plastici.
In 1914, the artist was mobilized yet again and served in the military until 1919. During this period he continued to work when he could, and even managed to illustrate André Breton's book, Mont de Piete. Upon leaving the army, he began work as a set designer in the theater and was responsible for designing at least eleven ballets. During this next period he abandoned many of his former artistic friends and instead, became active in aristocratic circles. His career flourished and in 1928 he was awarded the Carnegie Prize.
Late Years and Death
By the 1930s Derain had publicly condemned modern art and returned to the classical tradition. The 1931 publication of a book of essays titled Pour et Contre Derain (For and Against Derain) featured an essay by artist Jacque-Emile Blanche denouncing the artist's newly adopted style: "Youth has departed; what remains is a highly cerebral and rather mechanical art." In 1935, despite being ostracized from the avant-garde community, he was given a retrospective at the Kunsthalle in Bern and was included in the Exposition des Artistes Independants in 1937.
Derain had a home in Chambourcy with his wife but continued to paint in his apartment in Paris where he would meet with mistresses, with one of whom he had an illegitimate son. When his Chambourcy home was occupied by Germans at the beginning of the Second World War he moved to Paris and resided either at the apartment he shared with his wife or at his mistress's home.
The Germans were interested in Derain's Classicistic works, as they believed them representatives of prestigious French culture. Although he rejected the official commission to paint the family of Hitler's Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, he accepted an invitation to tour Germany in 1941 and eventually became quite involved in Germany's "propaganda machine." Following the liberation, the French considered him a traitor. When questioned regarding his support of the Reich, Derain denied helping the Germans and said "he had gone because he felt that art had nothing to do with politics, was, in fact, above it."
While his reputation never recovered, he continued to work in Chambourcy, where he resided with his wife and son, who he'd officially adopted. Following the birth of a second illegitimate child, Derain and Alice separated and she attempted to seize control of their finances. In 1953 Derain fell ill, dramatically affecting his vision. Although he recovered, he was hit by a truck and died shortly thereafter on September 8, 1954.
The Legacy of André Derain
Derain received a great deal of recognition during his lifetime. The range of styles he adopted over the course of his artistic career influenced a great many artists and many of the most significant artistic movements of the early-20th century. His part in the development of Fauvism is usually ignored, his influence on that of Cubism overlooked, yet he profoundly affected both movements.
Derain's reference to an aesthetic basic to Cubism, even before he purchased the African mask that would became one of the talismans of inspiration for the movement, early in 1906, indicates his important role in the style's development. "It is absolutely essential for us to break off the circle the Realists have locked us into. I've been rather moved by my visits around London and to the National Museum (National Gallery), as well as to the Negro Museum (the anthropological collection of the British Museum.) It's amazing, disquieting in expression. But there is a double reason behind this surfeit of expression: the forms issue from full outdoor light and are meant to be seen in full light... It is thus understood that the relations between volumes can express light or the coincidence of light with this or that form."
Affirmation of his pivotal role is given in Guillaume Apollinaire's attribution of the "almost immediate birth of Cubism to the closeness of Picasso and Derain in 1906" and contemporary critic John Golding's confirmation that "what gives Derain a place as a true forerunner of Cubism is that he was the first painter to combine in a single work the influence of Cézanne and Negro Art."
Derain's need for independence eventually led him to reject many of the more innovative styles he'd espoused early on yet his continual attempt to update his work led to changes that would have a lasting effect on future movements like Expressionism, Neo-Fauvism, and Surrealism. According to André Salmon "he was the figure to whom young artists looked to for instruction" and Clive Bell identified him as "the greatest power amongst young French painters." Giorgio de Chirico described him as "the only painter today who has made some contributions" and Giacometti wrote, "Derain excites me more, has given me more and taught me more than any painter since Cézanne; to me he is the most audacious of them all." In an unpublished note, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. commented: "Ironically, about the time of his death, his early paintings, the brilliant, spontaneous, semi-abstract fireworks of his fauve period, 1905-1906, were rocketing to heights of esteem, partly because they seemed related to the abstract expressionist art of the 1950s, partly because they were gay and charming in color."