Fauvism is a pictorial movement that emerged in France between the years 1904 – 1908. Later it spread to different countries…

Barges on the Seine, pintura fauvista de Vlaminck
Barcas en el Sena, obra de Vlaminck

Fauvist Painting

At the Salon d’Automne of 1905, the canvases of Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck scandalized the critics, who were outraged by that “jar of paint thrown in the face of the public”.

The generic name of “fauves” (wild beasts), which critic Vauxcelles gave in 1905 to these young artists, was soon taken up pejoratively. Hostile journalists referred to these artists as a “cage of wild beasts”; however, in just four years they managed to detach painting from the impressionist orbit and opened the way to cubism, abstraction, expressionism and futurism.

“Colors have such an influence on the spirit that it is enough to observe a color for a while to be carried away to a very different order of ideas from that experienced previously,” wrote Eugene Delacroix in the mid-nineteenth century, who was the first to paint shadows with color, making light triumph over the prevailing conception until then regarding reality.

Later, the impressionists suppressed black from their palette and gave less importance to the strictly optical observation of reality: they abandoned literal imitation and achieved a new freedom in painting, a liberation that would be definitively achieved with Cézanne.

Fauvism, ephemeral but decisive

Chronologically, Fauvism was the first avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. Henry Matisse (1869-1954), “the king of the fauves”, was the leader of the group and its most influential representative. In turn, he received the influence of Gauguin and was a student of the symbolist painter Gustave Moureau.

Perspective, modeling and the set of techniques for imitating nature inherited from the nineteenth century were replaced by the use of pure colors, arranged flatly, and curved lines to delimit shapes.

Matisse’s first Fauvist painting, “The Joy of Living”, responded to these postulates of modern painting: affirmation of painting and saturation of colors.

For the Fauvists, imitation of nature ceased to be the bet of a decidedly modern painting. It was rather a matter of transposing the motif into an autonomous register.

Painting turned to language, a language not articulated that was charged, however, with a new syntax, essentially chromatic. To the “impressions” of their illustrious predecessors, the Fauvists replaced “expression” by color.

Characteristics of Fauvism

To understand Fauvism we must know its characteristics:

  • Color is the center of the creations of the fauvist artists.
  • They limited the shapes with dark contours. By giving so much importance to color, sometimes, the artists leave aside some aspects such as modeling or perspective.
  • Fauvist painters look for forms beyond the representation by mimesis of nature, a condition inherited from Aristotle’s times. This new search generates some abstraction in the pictorial works. This new condition would end up leading to new pictorial movements such as Cubism or Abstraction.
  • In Fauvism, rough and discontinuous strokes are used with quick touches full of energy.
  • Through the works they try to convey a feeling of spontaneity.
  • Very summary and direct executions.
  • Liberation of color from drawing.
  • Fauvism is also characterized by exalting chromatic contrasts.
  • The RYB color model is born: Colors are classified into Primary, Secondary and Complementary.
  • Fauvist artists perceive nature and what surrounds them according to their feelings. Later they transmit it to their paintings.

Outstanding Fauvist painters

Andre Derain (1880-1954)

He was a French painter, representative of fauvism, a movement of which he was one of the most prominent figures. He abandoned his engineering studies to attend an academy and dedicate himself to painting. In that academy (Academie Carriere) he met Matisse and Vlaminck.

At first, Cézanne exerted a strong influence on his painting and later he was fascinated by Van Gogh’s work. He had a close relationship with Matisse, with whom he spent the summer of 1805 in Collioure, where he began to use the pointillist technique.

Arte Fauvista - Derain

Under the influence of Signac’s painting, Derain applied pure, unmixed colors on a white canvas. The presentation of Derian’s works together with those of Matisse, Vlaminck and other young artists, at the Salon d’Automne of 1905, earned them the well-known nickname of fauves by the critics.

He went to London in 1906 to repeat the experience carried out a few years earlier by Monet in his series on the Thames. In the English capital he painted a set of works that constitute the climax of his fauvist period.

In 1907 he befriended Picasso and Braque, with whom he shared his new interest in primitive art, which influenced his stone sculptures. In 1908 he destroyed much of his work to concentrate on a series of landscapes in which he started from Cézanne’s constructivism and a certain influence of Picasso and Braque’s incipient cubism.

Fauvismo obras - El puente de charing cross
Pintura Fauvista – El puente de charing cross – Derain

After spending four years on the front during World War I, his painting became more classical, under the influence of Corot and the great masters of classicism.

Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958)

Born in Paris, the son of musicians, he became one of the greats within Fauvism. He decided to become a professional cyclist until typhoid fever ended his sports career.

It was not until 1900, after a chance encounter with Derain during a period of military leave, that he finally decided to dedicate himself seriously to painting. His friendship with Derain lasted a lifetime. His first public appearance as an artist was at the Salon d’Automne of 1905.

Cuadros Fauvistas - El puente de Chatou - Vlamink
Pintura Fauvista – El puente de Chatou – Vlaminck

During the First World War he resided in Rouen, a time when he began to write poetry. He had previously published two novels, in 1902 and 1903, both of pornographic theme and illustrated by Derain.

After the war he will travel extensively through France, although most of his works are executed near the Seine, in the vicinity of Paris. His favorite themes during the period of the Second World War are landscapes and still lifes, characterized by a dark palette and thick brushstrokes.

Henri Matisse (1861-1954)

Some consider him the leader or precursor of Fauvism. Throughout his career, for more than 50 years, Matisse devoted himself to providing autonomy to the construction of pictorial space through an expressive treatment of color.

Obras Fauvistas - Lujo, calma y voluptuosidad
Pintura Fauvista – Lujo, calma y voluptosidad – Matisse

Matisse sought to “construct” a painting in opposition to traditional means, such as perspective or chiaroscuro. From Cézanne he preserved the configuration by color at the expense of modeling. From Signac, he retained the pure color without the method (divided brushstroke).

From there was born the will to treat color by itself in an expressive way, that is, without worrying about imitation; thus he would initiate fauvism. This was only a brief experience for Matisse, since he soon devoted himself to working on the color equation “quantity-quality”, which led him to use flat color surfaces (without nuances or effects of materiality), that is, to choose the colored plane at the expense of the depth effect.

The classical dialogue between form and space was thus completely disrupted by the imperatives of expression, that is, of composition. Matisse claimed that details reduce the purity of lines and weaken expression, hence the simplification.

In this sense, the sensation of space was expressed through color and some discreet allusions (foreshortenings, scale games) and not through the traditional perspective system. The representation of the body was subjected to the demands of composition, so that it was transformed into rhythmic motifs, from which deformations derive.

Movimiento Fauvista - Ventana en Tánger
Pintura Fauvista – Ventana en Tánger – Matisse

For Matisse, the “decorative” did not oppose expression. According to him, composition consisted of “the art of arranging decoratively the different elements that the painter has at his disposal to express his feelings”.

The surface was considered a field of force where tensions had to be played. The arabesque, a graphic technique and at the same time an ornament, was regularly used to work on the figure-background and two-dimensionality relationship.

Matisse accessed monumental decoration with his work “The Dance” and with the Rosary Chapel in Vence, where pure color found its immaterial culmination in the light of the stained glass windows.

Fauvism Paintings