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Fauvism - Art History 101 Basics

ca. 1898-ca. 1908

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© 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; Used with permission

André Derain (French, 1880-1954). Charing Cross Bridge, London, 1906. Oil on canvas. 31 5/8 x 39 1/2 in. (80.3 x 100.3 cm). John Hay Whitney Collection. 1982.76.3. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

© Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington; © 2006 ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris

"Fauves! Wild beasts!"

Not exactly a flattering way to greet the first Modernists, but this was the critical reaction to a small group of painters exhibiting in the 1905 Salon d'Automme in Paris. Their eye-popping color choices had never before been seen, and to see them all hanging together in the same room was a shock to the system. The artists hadn't intended to shock anyone, they were simply experimenting, trying to capture a new way of seeing that involved pure, vivid colors. Some of the painters approached their attempts cerebrally while others consciously choose not to think at all, but the results were similar: blocks and dashes of colors not seen in nature, juxtaposed with other unnatural colors in a frenzy of emotion. This had to have been done by madmen, wild beasts, fauves!

How Long Was the Movement?

First, bear in mind that Fauvism wasn't technically a movement. It had no written guidelines or manifesto, no membership roster, and no exclusive group exhibitions. "Fauvism" is simply a word of periodization we use in place of: "An assortment of painters who were loosely acquainted with one another, and experimented with color in roughly the same way at roughly the same time."

That said, Fauvism was exceptionally brief. Starting with Henri Matisse (1869-1954), who worked independently, a few artists began to explore using planes of undiluted color around the turn of the century. Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), André Derain (1880-1954), Albert Marquet (1875-1947) and Henri Manguin (1875-1949) all exhibited in the Salon d'Automme in 1903 and 1904. No one really paid attention, though, until the Salon of 1905, when all of their works were hung together in the same room.

It would be accurate to say that the Fauves' heyday began in 1905, then. They picked up a few temporary devotees including Georges Braque (1882-1963), Othon Friesz (1879-1949) and Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), and were on the public's radar for two more years through 1907. However, the Fauves had already begun to drift in other directions at that point, and they were stone cold done by 1908.

What Are the Key Characteristics of Fauvism?

  • Color!

    Nothing took precedence over color for the Fauves. Raw, pure color was not secondary to the composition, it defined the composition. For example, if the artist painted a red sky, the rest of the landscape had to follow suit. To maximize the effect of a red sky, he might choose lime green buildings, yellow water, orange sand, and royal blue boats. He might choose other, equally vivid colors. The one thing you can count on is that none of the Fauves ever went with realistically-colored scenery.

  • Simplified Forms

    Perhaps this goes without saying but, because the Fauves eschewed normal painting techniques to delineate shapes, simple forms were a necessity.

  • Ordinary Subject Matter

    You may have noticed that the Fauves tended to paint landscapes or scenes of everyday life within landscapes. There is an easy explanation for this: landscapes are not fussy, they beg for large areas of color.

  • Expressiveness

    Did you know that Fauvism is a type of Expressionism? Well, it is -- an early type, perhaps even the first type. Expressionism, that pouring forth of the artist's emotions through heightened color and popping forms, is another word for "passion" at its most basic meaning. The Fauves were nothing if not passionate, were they?

Influences of Fauvism

Post Impressionism was their primary influence, as the Fauves either knew personally or intimately knew the work of the Post-Impressionists. They incorporated the constructive color planes of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), the Symbolism and Cloisonnism of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and the pure, bright colors with which Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) will forever remain associated.

Additionally, Henri Matisse credited both Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and Paul Signac (1863-1935) for helping him discover his inner Wild Beast. Matisse painted with Signac -- a practitioner of Seurat's Pointillism -- at Saint-Tropez in the summer of 1904. Not only did the light of the French Riviera rock Matisse on his heels, he was bowled over by Signac's technique in that light. Matisse worked feverishly to capture the color possibilities whirling in his head, making study after study and, ultimately, completing Luxe, Calme et Volupte in 1905. The painting was exhibited the following spring at the Salon des Independents, and we hail it now as the first true example of Fauvism.

Movements Fauvism Influenced

Fauvism had a large impact on other expressionistic movements, including its contemporary Die Brücke and the later Blaue Reiter. More importantly, the bold colorization of the Fauves was a formative influence on countless individual artists going forward: think of Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, George Baselitz, or any of the Abstract Expressionists to name just a few.

Artists Associated with Fauvism

  • Ben Benn
  • Georges Braque
  • Charles Camoin
  • André Derain
  • Kees van Dongen
  • Raoul Dufy
  • Roger de la Fresnaye
  • Othon Friesz
  • Henri Manguin
  • Albert Marquet
  • Henri Matisse
  • Jean Puy
  • Georges Rouault
  • Louis Valtat
  • Maurice de Vlaminck
  • Marguerite Thompson Zorach

Sources

Clement, Russell T. Les Fauves: A Sourcebook.
     Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Elderfield, John. The "Wild Beasts": Fauvism and Its Affinities.
     New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1976.

Flam, Jack. Matisse on Art, revised ed.
     Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Leymarie, Jean. Fauves and Fauvism.
     New York: Skira, 1987.

Whitfield, Sarah. Fauvism.
     New York: Thames & Hudson, 1996.

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