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Radical Color and Wild Beasts: Matisse, Derain, and the Friendship that Defined Fauvism




In 1905, French painters André Derain and Henri Matisse spent a summer in the South of France exploring a new freedom and spontaneity in painting; characterized by vibrant color, painterly, expressive brushstrokes, and an irreverent approach to the idea of representation in art, they defined what became the essential style of Fauvism, a brief but influential avant-garde art movement.

Its pioneer, Matisse, was deeply influenced by the mantra of symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, his teacher at the École des Beaux-Arts, who believed that all art should be guided by self-expression and the emotional impulses of the artist. By 1904, the pointillism of Georges Seurat, the color palette of Paul Gauguin, and the gestural brushwork of Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh had already inspired Matisse to reject precise figuration in his work. By the summer of 1905, Matisse had begun to push his painting to a new degree of formalism, color, and expressiveness.

That same summer, Matisse invited young French painter André Derain to join him and his family on holiday in Collioure, a small fishing port in the South of France. Matisse and Derain’s work over the next few months in the Mediterranean village was prolific; the two friends spent their time painting scenes of everyday life and landscapes around Collioure, as well as dozens of portraits of each other, attacking convention with their extreme use of color. “My choice of colors does not rest on any scientific theory,” explained Matisse. “It is based on observation, on feeling, on the very nature of each experience.” Under Matisse’s tutelage, Derain began applying paints straight from the tube and using unexpected, non-naturalistic colors; seen in the The Turning Road, L’Estaque (1906), trees could be saturated yellows, and fields could be deep blues and reds. “We were always intoxicated with color,” said Derain.  

Come fall, Derain and Matisse returned to Paris, where their vivid canvases and spontaneous brushwork shocked the autumn salons; critic Louis Vauxcelles named the artists les fauves or the wild beasts. Over the next two years, les fauves gained new members (notably Maurice de Vlaminck, Jean Puy, Louis Valtat, and Georges Rouault), but for many artists, including Matisse and Derain, the Fauvist style was merely a transitional—albeit influential—stage in their career. Matisse is perhaps most known for his 1940s cut-paper pieces, while Derain led a new resurgence of classicism in painting when, shortly after 1910, he became fascinated with the work of Old Masters. However brief, Fauvism and its radical use of color epitomized one of the primary concerns of modernism—that art could celebrate expression and privilege abstraction over a realistic depiction of the world.

Olivia Jene Fagon, Contributor to The Art Genome Project

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