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Impressionist & Modern Art

Fauvism: 7 Things You Need to Know

Fauvism was the first avant-garde art movement of the 20th Century. Spearheaded by a trio of young, Paris-based painters – Henri Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck – it was characterised by intense, expressive, non-naturalistic colour, along with loose brushwork and simplified forms. 

Active from around 1905 to 1910, the Fauvists drew on – and advanced – several, recent currents of art: chiefly that of the Impressionists, Pointillists, Gauguin and Van Gogh, who refused to use colours in a way that literally corresponded to the subjects they were describing.

...when i put down a green, it doesn't mean grass; and when I put down a blue, it doesn't mean the sky"
Henri Matisse

As Matisse put it, "when I put down a green, it doesn't mean grass; and when I put down a blue, it doesn't mean the sky''. Colour, in short, was completely set free. 

Other Fauvists of note included Charles Camoin; Henri Manguin; Kees van Dongen; Georges Braque (who’d go on to co-found Cubism with Pablo Picasso); Othon Friesz; Jean Puy; Raoul Dufy; and Georges Rouault.

1. Wild Beasts: The movement's name derives from the French word for wild beast – fauve – and was coined by the stunned art critic, Louis Vauxcelles, when writing a review of the Autumn Salon exhibition in Paris in 1905. Seeing a Quattrocento-style sculpture displayed in the same room as eye-popping paintings by Matisse, Derain et al, he said, was like witnessing "Donatello chez les fauves" (Donatello among wild beasts). The label stuck, and Fauvism was born.

2. A Chance Meeting: The story of Fauvism starts with the chance meeting (and subsequent friendship) of Derain and Vlaminck in 1900 – after a train they were both on derailed outside Paris, forcing all passengers to get out and walk. Also crucial was the summer (of 1905) that Derain and another friend – Matisse – spent together in the Mediterranean fishing port of Collioure, in the south of France. There they painted a number of the works which would feature in that year's Autumn Salon.

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HENRI MATISSE, WOMAN WITH A HAT, 1905. SAN FRANCISCO MUSEUM OF MODERN ART. © PHOTO SCALA, FLORENCE.

3. Woman with a Hat: As it had been for the Impressionists, landscape scenes were highly popular with the Fauves – who set about painting Paris, its suburbs, Normandy, the Côte d'Azur and London, among other places. Perhaps the movement's first, major work, though, was a portrait: Matisse's Woman with a Hat (unveiled at the 1905 Autumn Salon and these days seen in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).

In it, Matisse rendered his wife Amelie with red hair, a green nose, blue cheeks, and a hat that looked as if it had a flower bed on top of it. Bourgeois sensibilities were offended, one critic saying of the work: "a pot of paint has been flung in the public's face". Woman with a Hat was swiftly purchased, however, by American collectors, Leo and Gertrude Stein, who'd go on to become loyal patrons of Matisse's work.

4. Matisse and Derain: Of all the Fauve artists, Matisse is by far the most famous today. However, in terms of contribution to the movement, Derain, was equally as important. He painted two of Fauvism’s landmark series: one of the River Thames, during a visit to London; and another of the French village of L'Estaque, near Marseilles.

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ANDRÉ DERAIN, THE TURNING ROAD, L'ESTAQUE, 1906. MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON. © PHOTO SCALA, FLORENCE.

5. Advances in Colour: Fauvism was only made possible by advances in industrial manufacturing in the 19th Century, which created new and brighter-coloured paint pigments. The group often used these straight from the tube, without mixing – which is to say, in the strongest possible form – in defiance of Academy practice and, indeed, of Western artistic convention generally.

6. Revolutionary Art: Even though the Fauvists made revolutionary art, it's fair to say they didn't have the personalities of "wild beasts". Before becoming a painter, Matisse was a lawyer, for example, while Derain was an engineer. The only member who came close to being an anarchist was Vlaminck, who insisted he "wanted to burn down the École des Beaux-Arts with [his] cobalts and vermillions".  

7. The Path to Abstraction: Given the brilliant colours and spontaneous brushwork, the movement on which Fauvism had the greatest impact was probably German Expressionism: in its two forms, The Blue Rider and Die Brücke. 

However, by subordinating everything – including the realistic depiction of subjects – to the interplay of colours, the Fauves also opened the way to abstraction.

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