Fauvism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Fauvism
In the opening years of the twentieth century, Post-Impressionist painters working in France such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and Cézanne were considered leaders in avant-garde art. Their collective experiments with paint application, subject matter, expressive line, and pure color were advances that fed the emergence of Fauvism. Symbolism, with its emphasis on the artist's internal vision, was another important influence. From another source, the European reassessment of African sculpture as art rather than an anthropological curiosity introduced new ideas of form and representation to the European modernists.
Matisse as Fauvist Pioneer
Henri Matisse is generally considered the principal founding artist of Fauvism. Like many of his contemporaries, Matisse was greatly influenced by Moreau's teaching that personal expression was among the most important attributes of a great painter. Also of considerable importance to the young Matisse were the techniques and systematic visual language of Pointillism, which had been spearheaded by his fellow countrymen Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, and Henri-Edmond Cross. Although Matisse did not apply Pointillist theory directly to his own work, the application of tiny dots of paint in varying colors to create a harmonious visual tone was something that fascinated Matisse. His observation of this technique led him to develop "color structure," or large, flat areas of color that established a deliberate, decorative effect and sense of mood. He was also very aware of the Post-Impressionist work of Paul Gauguin, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard, whose integration of solid color and design was a departure from the flickering, momentary effect of Impressionist painting.
Synthesizing all these ideas, Matisse turned away from using subtle hues of mixed paints and began working with bright color, directly from the tube, as a means of conveying emotion. He had been working outdoors since the mid-1890s, and his travels to Corsica and the south of France in 1898 increased his interest in capturing the effect of strong natural light. A summer spent working alongside Signac and Cross at Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera in 1904 gave him a further opportunity to witness their techniques.
Fellow Fauves: Derain and de Vlaminck
During the same years as Matisse's initial experimentation with Post-Impressionist techniques, the two painters André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck met in 1901 and began sharing a studio in Chatou, a western suburb of Paris. Working closely together, they developed their new mutual interest in bold color and directional brushwork.
Matisse met Derain in 1899, and two years later, through Derain, he met de Vlaminck. As an older and more established artist, he supported and encouraged these two kindred spirits, even introducing them to prospective dealers. In 1905 Matisse visited the studio in Chatou, where he was strongly impressed by de Vlaminck's use of pure color. Matisse invited Derain to spend the summer of 1905 with him in Collioure, a port and fishing town located on the southern coast of France. The two men spent this breakthrough summer working and refining their styles and techniques, producing numerous significant paintings during a crucial four-month period of collaboration.
The 1905 Salon d'Automne
Later that year, the Salon d'Automne exhibition was held at the Grand Palais in Paris. Matisse, Derain, and de Vlaminck all exhibited works in this show; they were joined by other former students of Moreau, including Henri Manguin and Albert Marquet. The paintings on display were quite distinctive in their use of vivid, saturated color and spontaneous brushwork. Also included in the exhibition was a more traditional-looking Italianate sculptural bust by Marquet, and this figure's proximity to the garishly colored, energetically executed paintings prompted the critic Louis Vauxcelles to describe the scene as "Donatello parmi les fauves" ("Donatello among the wild beasts"). The term "Fauves" was thus coined for these artists; although it was pejorative in its original context, it endured.
Fauvism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
An Expanding Circle
Despite initial hostility from critics, many of the Fauves enjoyed commercial success following the Salon d'Automne exhibition of 1905. Their art was featured at additional exhibits held over the following years, notably at the Salon des Indépendants in 1907, where the main attraction was a large room dubbed "The Fauves' Den." Meanwhile, other artists began to join the central trio of Matisse, Derain, and de Vlaminck. The expanding group of Fauves (all based in France) eventually included Othon Friesz, Georges Rouault (another student of Gustave Moreau), Kees van Dongen, Georges Braque, and Raoul Dufy. These artists traveled together, shared studios, and exchanged ideas freely during the rather brief heyday of Fauvism.
The Primacy of Color
All the Fauves were intensely preoccupied with color as a means of personal expression. Color and the combination of colors constituted the intrinsic subject, form, and rhythm of their work. A sky could be orange, a tree could be blue, a face could be a combination of seemingly clashing colors; the end result was a wholly independent product of the artist's perception, rather than a faithful depiction of the original physical form. Additionally, compositional elements were built up through the placement of color, rather than through perspectival systems or draftsmanship.
Subject and Style
In their shared preoccupation with expression through color and form, these artists were generally less concerned with the novelty of their subject matter. Whereas the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists had depicted scenes of modern, urban life, such as the boulevards, cafés, and concert halls of Paris, the Fauves took more traditional subjects as their starting points. Their subject matter drew from the world around them and included portraits, landscapes, seascapes, and figures in interiors, but the visual impact of the color composition took primacy over any possible narrative or symbolism. Instead, they used their subjects as vehicles for the acts of observation and painting, with their active brushwork and non-naturalistic color as means of leading the viewer into their inner, creative journeys.
Later Developments - After Fauvism
The Fauves' tendency to distort form and color in order to express inner sensations was a strong influence on the Expressionists, whose own artistic movement proved much longer-lived and more cohesive. The German Expressionists, led by such artists as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, employed a similarly aggressive use of color in their bustling Berlin street scenes and frequently grotesque portraiture.
Cézanne and Cubism
In a sense, Fauvism's demise can be also attributed to a renewal of interest in Cézanne. A Cézanne exhibition held in Paris in 1907 revived attention in the artist's work, particularly his emphasis on natural order and structure. Georges Braque, for example, began to favor a more restricted color palette, focusing more on subtle gradations of color and scale. This approach led Braque to fill his canvases with a crowded yet carefully ordered abundance of shapes and forms, as in his 1908 work Road near L'Estaque, which is unmistakably a crucial precursor to the artist's development of the Cubist style.
In another interesting crossover during this era, the Fauves' and Pablo Picasso's circles were both interested in African art. Matisse's travelled to Morocco acquired new ideas about color and pattern that surfaced in works like The Green Line (Portrait of Madame Matisse) (1905) and Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra) (1907), with their radically simplified features and angular limbs inspired by African sculpture. This use of non-Western artistic sources also had a profound influence on the younger Picasso; he began to incorporate African and Iberian masks into his own work, including in a number of self-portraits and in the iconic Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).
By 1908 the Fauves were individually venturing in separate directions: Braque began developing Cubism alongside Picasso, Derain briefly flirted with Cubism as well, and de Vlaminck darkened both his palette and subject matter. Meanwhile, other artists in the group, such as Marquet, Dufy, and Rouault, had begun to work in other styles.
Ultimately, the Fauves joined together for a short but highly consequential episode, rather than a fully defined school. Although they never produced a group manifesto outlining their artistic aims, Matisse's "Notes of a Painter," written in 1908, formalized many of their shared concerns and goals, including their commitment to personal expression and individual instinct, their use of color as an independent visual element with an emotional effect, and their rethinking of composition as pictorial surface. Even after the dissolution of the group, nearly as soon as it gained its infamous nickname, Fauvism's ideas and landmark works would continue to influence art for decades to come.