The River Seine At Chatou Analysis Essay

Fauvism was the first of the avant-garde movements that flourished in France in the early years of the twentieth century. The Fauve painters were the first to break with Impressionism as well as with older, traditional methods of perception. Their spontaneous, often subjective response to nature was expressed in bold, undisguised brushstrokes and high-keyed, vibrant colors directly from the tube.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and André Derain (1880–1954) introduced unnaturalistic color and vivid brushstrokes into their paintings in the summer of 1905, working together in the small fishing port of Collioure on the Mediterranean coast (1975.1.194; 1982.179.29). When their pictures were exhibited later that year at the Salon d’Automne in Paris (Matisse, The Woman with a Hat, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), they inspired the witty critic Louis Vauxcelles to call them fauves (“wild beasts”) in his review for the magazine Gil Blas. This term was later applied to the artists themselves.

The Fauves were a loosely shaped group of artists sharing a similar approach to nature, but they had no definitive program. Their leader was Matisse, who had arrived at the Fauve style after earlier experimenting with the various Post-Impressionist styles of van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne, and the Neo-Impressionism of Seurat, Cross, and Signac. These influences inspired him to reject traditional three-dimensional space and seek instead a new picture space defined by the movement of color planes (1999.363.38; 1999.363.41).

Another major Fauve was Maurice de Vlaminck (1876–1958), who might be called a “natural” Fauve because his use of highly intense color corresponded to his own exuberant nature. Vlaminck took the final step toward embracing the Fauve style (1999.363.84; 1999.363.83) after seeing the second large retrospective exhibition of van Gogh’s work at the Salon des Indépendants in the spring of 1905, and the Fauve paintings produced by Matisse and Derain in Collioure.

As an artist, Derain occupied a place midway between the impetuous Vlaminck and the more controlled Matisse. He had worked with Vlaminck in Chatou, near Paris, intermittently from 1900 on and spent the summer of 1905 with Matisse in Collioure. In 1906–7, he also painted some twenty-nine scenes of London in a more restrained palette (1999.363.18).

Other important Fauves were Kees van Dongen, Charles Camoin, Henri-Charles Manguin, Othon Friesz, Jean Puy, Louis Valtat, and Georges Rouault. These were joined in 1906 by Georges Braque and Raoul Dufy.

For most of these artists, Fauvism was a transitional, learning stage. By 1908, a revived interest in Paul Cézanne’s vision of the order and structure of nature had led many of them to reject the turbulent emotionalism of Fauvism in favor of the logic of Cubism. Braque became the cofounder with Picasso of Cubism. Derain, after a brief flirtation with Cubism, became a widely popular painter in a somewhat neoclassical manner. Matisse alone pursued the course he had pioneered, achieving a sophisticated balance between his own emotions and the world he painted (1984.433.16).

The Fauvist movement has been compared to German Expressionism, both projecting brilliant colors and spontaneous brushwork, and indebted to the same late nineteenth-century sources, especially the work of Vincent van Gogh. The French were more concerned with the formal aspects of pictorial organization, while the German Expressionists were more emotionally involved in their subjects.

Sabine Rewald
Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004

Born in Paris to a Flemish father and a French mother, Vlaminck grew up in a musical household that was virtually impoverished. At the age of sixteen, he left home and moved to Chatou, where he later supported his wife and two children by working as a professional cyclist and an itinerant violinist. Although now considered a suburb of Paris, Chatou was then a small village situated to the west, along the Seine. Opposite it lies the Île de Chatou, a long, narrow stretch of land in the center of the river. The scene shown here appears to have been observed from a point on the island facing the village of Chatou, with its red-roofed houses, on the mainland. Vlaminck shared a studio on the island with fellow artist André Derain in 1900. Together, they formed what has been called the "School of Chatou," and their painting style—characterized by bright colors and bold brushstrokes—was a harbinger of Fauvism.

The self-taught Vlaminck embraced painting with the same unbridled passion as he did life itself, spontaneously choosing the most straightforward forms and basic hues to express his feelings: "I try to paint with my heart and my guts without worrying about style." After the Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard purchased Vlaminck's existing stock of paintings early in 1906, the artist was able to devote himself fully to painting, and his work became more lighthearted and exuberant. He spent the summer of 1906 in and around Chatou, painting pictures such as this one, in which he emulated the undisguised brushwork and intuitive application of paint of Van Gogh's late, expressive style, which he so admired. Combining the primary colors of blue and red with white, Vlaminck applied them directly from the tube in daubs and swirls of pigment, employing these conventional hues for the white houses, green leaves, reddish-orange tree trunks, and the blue, red, and white trawler in the background.

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