Maurice de Vlaminck - Biography and Legacy
French Painter, Graphic Designer, and Writer
Biography of Maurice de Vlaminck
Maurice de Vlaminck was born on April 4, 1876 in Paris. He grew up in a working class family of musicians. His father Edmond Julien taught the violin, and his mother Joséphine Caroline Grillet taught piano. When he was three years old his family moved to Le Vesinet, a town about 10 miles northwest of Paris, to live with his grandmother.
Vlaminck did not originally pursue a career as a professional artist. He said, "The thought of becoming a painter never as much as occurred to me. I would have laughed out loud if someone had suggested that I choose painting as a career. To be a painter is not a business, no more than to be an artist, lover, racer, dreamer, or prizefighter. It is a gift of Nature, a gift..." While he did not set out to be an artist, his education did include painting lessons from an academic artists between 1888 and 1891. Additionally, he studied with a local painter named Henri Rigalon in 1893. He held multiple careers to support his family before deciding to dedicate his life to painting.
Vlaminck had a reputation as a loudmouth, troublemaker, and womanizer. For instance, he is known to have frequented brothels in Paris. Despite his scandalous reputation, he married Suzanne Berly in 1894. They started a family less than a year later and had three daughters together.
Vlaminck was tall and powerfully built and sometimes supplemented his income with amateur boxing. His athletic prowess helped him succeed as a professional racer in 1893, when cycling became popular. He once confided on the subject, "The admiring looks of the girls and women, the bravos and cheers of the excited spectators... never, anywhere, had I felt such utter and complete satisfaction as I did in the days when I was nothing more than the winner of a simple bicycle race. At the time women admired us in the same way as today they admire an airman."
In 1896 Vlaminck contracted typhoid fever, dramatically halting his cycling career. Following his recovery, he was called upon for military service and served as a member of the regimental band. He found little time to paint while in the army and his earliest known work is a decoration for the regimental fête in 1899. During his service Vlaminck contributed multiple articles to radical magazines such as Fin de siècle and L'anarchie.
Vlaminck completed his military service in 1900. That same year, he met André Derain on a train after they were both involved in a minor railcar accident. The two immediately became close friends and collaborators although Derain's parents disliked their son spending time with a "bohemian anarchist." Vlaminck was banned from the Derain household, and allegedly, Derain would hang his paintings out of his window for Vlaminck to see and critique. They eventually rented a studio together in Chatou, which they maintained for a couple of years. Between 1902 and 1903 Vlaminck wrote pornographic novels that Derain illustrated. He began painting during the day and giving violin lessons in the evening, and performing with musical bands at night to scrape together an income.
Vlaminck once described how he and Derain painted together: (the story may well be apocryphal or at least exaggerated) "Each of us set up his easel, Derain facing Chatou, with the bridge and steeple in front of him, myself to one side, attracted by the poplars. Naturally I finished first. I walked over to Derain holding my canvas against my legs so that he couldn't see it. I looked at his picture. Solid, skillful, powerful, already a Derain. 'What about yours?' he said. I spun my canvas around. Derain looked at it in silence for a minute, nodded his head and declared, 'Very fine.' That was the starting point of all Fauvism."
While Derain and Vlaminck were already painting in the Fauvist style, it was Matisse who encouraged them to exhibit with him in 1905 at the Salon des Indépendents. Vlaminck met Matisse for the first time in 1901 during the van Gogh retrospective at the Galeries Bernheim Jeune in Paris. However, he did not see him again until Derain returned from his military service and invited Matisse to their studio in Chatou in 1905. Matisse was taken aback by Vlaminck's unrestrained use of pure, bright colors. According to Vlaminck, Matisse returned the next day saying, "I couldn't close my eyes last night! I want to see it all over again!" Matisse recalled that the best part of visiting the Chatou studio was "the comfort of knowing that two much younger men had independently reached the same point as [himself]."
At the Salon des Indépendents, Vlaminck only managed to sell one painting and used the money to pay for the birth of his third daughter. He exhibited at the 1905 Salon d'Automne, where his work was grouped with his friends in a space labeled 'Cage aux Fauves' (Cage of Wild Beasts) by Louis Vauxcelles, an art critic, who unwittingly coined the name for the movement. Vauxcelles declared that Vlaminck and Derain used their colors as though they were "charges of dynamite" and referred to them as "Incohérents." Matisse introduced Vlaminck to Ambroise Vollard, one of the most important art dealers of the early-20th century, and after seeing his work Vollard bought the contents of his studio and gave him a solo show the following year.
Vollard's support allowed Vlaminck to give up teaching and pursue a full time career as a professional artist. He and Suzanne separated following the birth of their third daughter and he married one of his students, Berthe Combe, a fashion designer. "He described her as more than a wife, but 'a friend who understands what is in my mind before I've expressed it." They had two daughters together.
In 1908 Vlaminck's style changed dramatically; his palette became darker and nearly monochromatic and the influence of Cézanne is evident. He briefly began experimenting with Cubism although he denied having any interest in the style. He related how he "was suddenly confronted with a Cubist painting at Paul Guillaume's gallery as late as 1914" and at that moment "was no longer on [his] own ground." It was as though, declared Vlaminck, "I was on the brink of an abyss." His bitterness towards Cubism developed from the belief that the style had usurped the role of Fauvism in the unfolding of modernism. He blamed Picasso, whom he "regarded as a trickster and an imposter." Despite these virulent attacks, he claimed in his book Tournant dangereux (1929) that he was directly involved with the birth of the movement during a "lively art discussion" at a small bistro. While he can be credited with the discovery of the inspirational African sculptures in Argenteuil in 1902 and selling a mask to Derain, his direct involvement in the movement was short lived.
At the beginning of the First World War, Vlaminck was mobilized but avoided combat by serving in the war effort close to Paris. Following the end of the war, he had his second solo show in 1919. A Swedish businessman purchased ten thousand Francs worth of his paintings, allowing him to retire to Eure-et Loire southwest of Paris. There, he began isolating himself from his contemporaries.
Late Years and Death
Vlaminck's late work is often criticized for being repetitious and lacking innovation. He began to move further away from the vibrant style of his early Fauvist paintings, producing monochromatic rural scenes. Despite the criticism, Vlaminck enjoyed a great deal of success during the interwar years. Several books were published about him and in 1933 he had a retrospective at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1937 his work was included in the Exposition des Artistes Indépendants held at the Petit Palais in connection with the Paris Exposition Universelle.
Vlaminck's success attracted the attention of the Germans during the Second World War and he was invited to join a group of French artists touring for the Third Reich. During his time spent traveling in Nazi Germany, he published Portraits avant décès, a book he authored in which he criticized modern art. He considered it "an art made of theories," asserting that, in modern art," metaphysical painting and abstraction replace sensibility" and that the art "lacks moral health." While many of the accusations he made against modern art movements such as Cubism and artists such as Picasso were written as early as 1937, the publication of the book during a time when many artists were under direct threat by the Nazis, earned him the label traitor.
In June of 1942, Vlaminck published an article in the daily journal, Comœdia, condemning Cubism and Picasso in which he described the latter as "this Catalan with the face of a monk and the eyes of an inquisitor who never speaks of art without a private smile showing on his lips." "Picasso's unforgivable sin?" demanded Vlaminck of his readers before responding on their behalf, "Cubism. It is difficult to kill what does not exist. But it is true, it is the dead who must be killed... Pablo Picasso is guilty of having forced French painting into the most fatal of impasses, into indescribable confusion. From 1900 to 1930 he led it to negativism, impotence, death. Cubism is as remote from painting as pederasty is from love." Vlaminck was arrested and interrogated following the liberation of France due to his alleged involvement with the German propaganda campaign. He was not prosecuted for his actions; however, his reputation was tarnished.
Despite Vlaminck's diminished reputation, he participated in the Fauvist Exhibition of 1947 and the Venice Biennale in 1956. Additionally, he was elected as a member of Belgium's Royal Academy in 1955 and given a major retrospective at Galerie Charpentier in 1962. Vlaminck actively painted and wrote until his death in 1958.
The Legacy of Maurice de Vlaminck
Vlaminck received a great deal of recognition during his lifetime. While he is often remembered as an artist, he was also a successful writer, publishing multiple novels, poems, screenplays, and articles. Vlaminck may be regarded as, in his words, the "wildest beast," determined to "burn down the l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts" with his "cobalts and vermilions." His opposition to tradition and his resolve to experiment with new art forms made him a leader in innovation.
Although Vlaminck's late career was far less innovative, his use of color and powerful brushstrokes during the height of his Fauve years had a lasting effect on modern art, inspiring specific Expressionist movements such as Die Brucke, Blaue Reiter, and Neo-Fauvism. French poet and art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire once referred to Vlaminck as "one of the most talented painters of his generation." His simple and intensive technique," wrote Apollinaire, "allows the lines their full liberty, the volumes their full relief, and the colors their full clarity, their full beauty."