The name les fauves (‘the wild beasts’) was coined by the critic Louis Vauxcelles when he saw the work of Henri Matisse and André Derain in an exhibition, the salon d’automne in Paris, in 1905. The paintings Derain and Matisse exhibited were the result of a summer spent working together in Collioure in the South of France and were made using bold, non-naturalistic colours (often applied directly from the tube), and wild loose dabs of paint. The forms of the subjects were also simplified making their work appear quite abstract.
Other like-minded artists associated with fauvism included Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, Georges Rouault, and Maurice de Vlaminck.
Fauvism and colour theory
The fauvists were interested in the scientific colour theories developed in the nineteenth century – particularly those relating to complementary colours. Complementary colours are pairs of colours appear opposite each other on scientific models such as the colour wheel, and when used side-by-side in a painting make each other look brighter.
What inspired fauvism? (And what happened to it?)
Fauvism can be seen as an extreme extension of the post-impressionism of Van Gogh combined with the neo-impressionism of Seurat. The influences of these earlier movements inspired Matisee and his followers to reject traditional three-dimensional space and instead use flat areas or patches of colour to create a new pictorial space. Fauvism can also be seen as a form of expressionism in its use of brilliant colors and spontaneous brushwork. It has often been compared to German expressionism, which emerged at around the same time and was also inspired by the developments of post-impressionism.
Although one of the first avant-gardemodernist movements of the twentieth century and one of the first styles to make a move towards abstraction, for many of the artists who adopted a fauvist approach it became a transitional stepping stone for future developments in their style. By 1908 most of the main artists in the group had moved away from the expressive emotionalism of fauvism. A renewed interest in post-impressionist artist Paul Cézanne and the analytical approach he took to painting landscapes, people and objects inspired many artists to embrace order and structure instead. One–time fauvist Georges Braque went on to develop cubism along with Pablo Picasso while one of fauvism’s founders André Derain adopted a more conventional neoclassical style. Henri Matisse however continued to use the distinctive fauvist traits of bright emotive colours, simple shapes and painterly mark-making throughout his career.
Fauvism was the first of the avant-garde movements that flourished in France in the early years of the twentieth century. The Fauve painters were the first to break with Impressionism as well as with older, traditional methods of perception. Their spontaneous, often subjective response to nature was expressed in bold, undisguised brushstrokes and high-keyed, vibrant colors directly from the tube.
Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and André Derain (1880–1954) introduced unnaturalistic color and vivid brushstrokes into their paintings in the summer of 1905, working together in the small fishing port of Collioure on the Mediterranean coast (1975.1.194; 1982.179.29). When their pictures were exhibited later that year at the Salon d’Automne in Paris (Matisse, The Woman with a Hat, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), they inspired the witty critic Louis Vauxcelles to call them fauves (“wild beasts”) in his review for the magazine Gil Blas. This term was later applied to the artists themselves.
The Fauves were a loosely shaped group of artists sharing a similar approach to nature, but they had no definitive program. Their leader was Matisse, who had arrived at the Fauve style after earlier experimenting with the various Post-Impressionist styles of van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne, and the Neo-Impressionism of Seurat, Cross, and Signac. These influences inspired him to reject traditional three-dimensional space and seek instead a new picture space defined by the movement of color planes (1999.363.38; 1999.363.41).
Another major Fauve was Maurice de Vlaminck (1876–1958), who might be called a “natural” Fauve because his use of highly intense color corresponded to his own exuberant nature. Vlaminck took the final step toward embracing the Fauve style (1999.363.84; 1999.363.83) after seeing the second large retrospective exhibition of van Gogh’s work at the Salon des Indépendants in the spring of 1905, and the Fauve paintings produced by Matisse and Derain in Collioure.
As an artist, Derain occupied a place midway between the impetuous Vlaminck and the more controlled Matisse. He had worked with Vlaminck in Chatou, near Paris, intermittently from 1900 on and spent the summer of 1905 with Matisse in Collioure. In 1906–7, he also painted some twenty-nine scenes of London in a more restrained palette (1999.363.18).
Other important Fauves were Kees van Dongen, Charles Camoin, Henri-Charles Manguin, Othon Friesz, Jean Puy, Louis Valtat, and Georges Rouault. These were joined in 1906 by Georges Braque and Raoul Dufy.
For most of these artists, Fauvism was a transitional, learning stage. By 1908, a revived interest in Paul Cézanne’s vision of the order and structure of nature had led many of them to reject the turbulent emotionalism of Fauvism in favor of the logic of Cubism. Braque became the cofounder with Picasso of Cubism. Derain, after a brief flirtation with Cubism, became a widely popular painter in a somewhat neoclassical manner. Matisse alone pursued the course he had pioneered, achieving a sophisticated balance between his own emotions and the world he painted (1984.433.16).
The Fauvist movement has been compared to German Expressionism, both projecting brilliant colors and spontaneous brushwork, and indebted to the same late nineteenth-century sources, especially the work of Vincent van Gogh. The French were more concerned with the formal aspects of pictorial organization, while the German Expressionists were more emotionally involved in their subjects.
Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art