What Is Fauvism?

George Philip LeBourdais
Oct 9, 2017 4:00PM

Henri Matisse did not seem like one to rock the boat. Serious, intelligent, and embarking on a promising career after studying law in Paris, his path in life appeared entirely bourgeois. When his mother gave him art supplies to help him recover from an illness, however, he was, in his words, “bitten by the demon of painting.”

The tone of this statement is fitting for an artist who was responsible for the first avant-garde European art movement of the 20th century, Fauvism, the name of which means “wild beasts.” To a contemporary eye, the intensely colorful landscape and portrait paintings of the Fauvists, often characterized by a rough application of paint rendered directly from the tube, might read as more joyful and celebratory than savage in their bright, non-naturalistic hues and energetic vitality—but these were very different times.

And as with some other avant-garde styles, Fauvism acquired its name through an insult. Reviewing the 1905 Salon d’Automne art exhibition in Paris—an annual, independent showcase of progressive art—the renowned art critic Louis Vauxcelles (who later coined the term Cubism) found the brushwork by Matisse, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Charles Camoin, Georges Rouault, and certain other artists displayed at the salon that year to be coarse and untamed, with an “orgy of colors.” The name “fauve” would become a badge of honor for the artists.


The most famous Fauvist work at the salon, Matisse’s Luxe, Calme, et Volupté (Luxury, Calm, and Desire), finished in 1904, was a shocking, visionary work. With a title borrowed from a poem by Charles Baudelaire, the work had the structure of traditional, idealized landscapes, but its aesthetic—with staccato brushstrokes, the white of the canvas showing through, and non-naturalistic, expressive color and detail—was entirely contemporary, an unrestrained, celebration of the here and now.

Nearby, his 1905 painting Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat) spoke even more forcefully of this foundational moment for Fauvism. Its presence alongside other jarringly colored works by Dérain, Camoin, and Vlaminck made the central gallery in the Grand Palais seem like a “cage.” A half-length portrait of Matisse’s wife, Amélie, Woman with a Hat was full of bourgeois accoutrements: a gloved hand holding a paper fan, the elaborate hat that gives the work its title. Yet these features emerge from a strident, unhinged palette that defied the rules of academic painting and offended bourgeois sensibilities.

The Movement’s Origins

Matisse’s innovations were radical, but they owe much to his artistic training. After devoting himself to art, he studied at the respected Académie Julian under William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a sentimental academic painter who employed a traditional technique. Matisse’s breakthrough would come after he entered the École des Beaux-Arts and began working with Gustave Moreau, the talented Symbolist painter who encouraged “means of expression in keeping with one’s own temperament.”

With important lessons learned from Moreau and the Post-Impressionists Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac, Matisse had by 1898 begun to create works like Fruit and Coffeepot, which emboldened other artists to take on its unruly colors. Albert Marquet began to show with Matisse in 1901, while Derain and Vlaminck developed a working friendship with one another.

The pivotal moment, however, came in the summer of 1905, just before that year’s Salon d’Automne. Derain accepted Matisse’s invitation to join him in the southern seacoast town of Collioure. If Fauvism lived and died in Paris, Collioure is where it was born. Energized by Matisse’s ideas and working method, Derain became more adventurous. While the influence of Vincent van Gogh’s intensely expressive Neo-Impressionist brushwork dominates works like Derain’s Bridge at le Pecq, by the end of that summer, he had painted the hallucinatory L’Estaque.

The painting’s strong outlines mark out the different planes and forms of this French Riviera landscape. Vivid, unnatural colors animate every shape, but rather than the pure, discrete forms that one might find in the cloisonnisme, or stained-glass effect, of Paul Gauguin, Derain’s objects seem to ebb and flow. The very trees seem to undulate from blue to red to yellow to green.

The Leaders of Fauvism

With the scandal that followed the display of these works at the 1905 salon, other artists were attracted to the fold. Matisse began selling work to the expat writer Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo Stein, influential collectors on the avant-garde Parisian art scene. At the Salon des Indépendants in the spring of 1906, Othon Friesz, Kees van Dongen, Jean Puy, and Georges Braque showed with the core group.

By this time Matisse and Derain embraced calmer scenes featuring pure, emotional colors. Le Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life) (1905–06), another of Matisse’s most famous masterpieces, reveals the growing influence of classical composition in this period. Quoting from Paul Cézanne’s The Large Bathers (1906), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque (1814), and even the great Italian master Titian, Matisse wove other works into his mature Fauvist vocabulary. Figures curl luxuriantly into one another, or melt into the glowing landscape.

At the same time, Vlaminck pushed his visual language into a more and more expressive space, bolstered by the encouragement of the influential art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who he met in 1906. Setting up his easel next to the Seine in Chatou that summer, Vlaminck worked at a feverish pace, squeezing cobalts and vermilions straight from the tube to the canvas in works like The Seine at Chatou. The paint was thick but the passages were flat, allowing forms like trees to coalesce from streaks of pure color. Vlaminck’s energy was essential not only to his own work during this period, but also to refining the ideas and processes of Matisse, Derain, and the corps of artists that came in their wake.

Why Fauvism Matters

Though influential, Fauvism was a short-lived movement. Its assault on stylistic conventions soon became a convention of its own. By 1907, the word “fauves” had entered common usage in the Parisian art scene. Scores of artists branded themselves as aligned with the movement, diluting its once provocative aims.

Moreover, the Fauvist artists met challenges from newcomers. Matisse, for one, found himself increasingly responding to the work of Pablo Picasso. The intensity of the rivalry they developed required both to continue evolving their styles. Matisse began searching for a means to express greater simplicity in his art. Cézanne’s death and retrospective exhibition in 1907 compelled many painters to return to his structured, more geometric view of the word.

When Braque sent several works “made of little cubes,” as Vauxcelles put it, to the Salon d’Automne in 1908, Cubism burst into view. Later explaining his abandonment of the Fauvist style, Braque said, “You can’t remain forever in a state of paroxysm.”

With its emphasis on the emotional potency of color, Fauvism had pioneered a new, 20th-century sensibility in modern art. It paralleled the formation of Die Brücke group in Germany, and influenced the related development of Expressionism there. The fact that it was never a neatly defined group or aesthetic code paradoxically enhanced its influence on the European avant-garde. Its lessons spread well beyond Paris and continued to influence artists long after 1908.

Cubism, Orphism, and later Abstract Expressionism all owe something to the two or so years that Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, and their followers explored the wildest hues and expressive potential of paint.

—George-Philip LeBourdais

George Philip LeBourdais