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Art Movements in Art History - Fauvism

Art Movements > Fauvism > Matisse and Fauvism

Matisse and Fauvism*

In order to understand the sometimes widely divergent styles and aims of the painters
loosely grouped under the title "Fauve", it must be recognised that different artists
responded in particular ways to a wealth of later 19th century influences, and adapted
aspects of these quite consciously as vehicles for individual expression. That this
individualism found a common ground at all is partly due to the assimilation of the same
sources and partly to the guidance of Matisse. In fact a selected survey of the origins of
Matisse's art can serve as a summary of the origins of the group as a whole.

Moreau's teaching affected some of the Fauves directly. But the importance of his ideas
cannot be confined to them alone, and something of his emphasis on the "relentless pursuit
of the expression of inward feelings" can be seen reflected in most avant-garde painting after 1900. Matisse has stressed Moreau's importance for his own development prior to 1900:

"With him one was able to discover the sort of' work most suited to one's temperament."

The licence Moreau's teaching gave to Matisse to explore his individual responses
allowed him in 1895 in Brittany to adopt an Impressionist manner. This freed him from his
dependence on museum art, lightened his palette and liberated the rhythm of his brush
strokes. But in time the example of Impressionism was to gain a wider
meaning for Matisse and his friends. In a statement to Escholier, the artist has partly
defined this later response:

"The Impressionist's paintings have shown the following generalization that colours,
while they can serve to describe things or natural phenomena, have in themselves,
independent of the objects they set out to express, an important action on a spectator's

Matisse's first response to Impressionism consisted of emphasising luminosity at the
expense of form in the manner of Monet and Pisarro. By the experimental
period of 1898 to 1899, however, the artist had adapted both brush strokes and colour to
Neoimpressionist usage; the loose pointillism and subjective colouration of his works of this
period prefigure his Fauvist canvases of 1906 to 1908.

Postimpressionism was another important influence on Matisse and the Fauves. One of
Matisse's early enthusiasms was the art of Van Gogh. Before the 1901 Van Gogh
retrospective, ten of his canvases were shown in an 1891 retrospective at the Salon des
Independents, and in 1892 16 paintings could be viewed in a Paris dealer's showroom. Here
was an exciting example of "expression" in colour, brushwork, composition and ultimately
in content. In letters written to his brother Theo, Van Gogh gives a full explanation for his
distortions of form, his vital, intuitive use of colour and his often complex compositions. In
essence he desired to "... paint what I feel and feel what I paint". In Letter 294 of 1883 Van
Gogh wrote:

"One must seek a way to express what one feels and venture a little outside the ordinary
rules to render them exactly as one wants."

Van Gogh's use of the word "express" may in fact be the closest a 19th century artist
came to anticipating the attitude of the expressionist artist of the 20th century.

Except for Vlaminck, however, the Fauve artists (especially Matisse and Derain) tended
to combine the vigour of Van Gogh's colour and brushwork with the tempering influence of
other artists whose emphasis on structural values was more pronounced. Matisse by no
means abandoned himself to his feelings in the manner of Van Gogh. He liberated his use of
colour, as did the Neoimpressionists, but in the matter of compositional proportion and
balance it was to the sober art of Cezanne that he turned.

In 1899 Matisse purchased a Cezanne Bathers and subsequently concentrated more
closely on the problems of form and space. Cezanne, preoccupied by the revelation of
permanence behind the transparent perception of things in the visible world, had attempted
to concentrate on the elucidation of forms in their relationship to each other and to the space
around them. Matisse spent the years of 1899 to 1901 evolving a method of translating his
visual experience in a way that could accommodate the lessons of both Cezanne and Van

Gauguin was also an influence on Fauvism. His interest in "primitive" art and his stress
on pure and non-naturalistic colour provided precedents for the Fauvists' interest in non-
Western art and the expressive potential of hues. Gauguin wrote

"I observed the play of shadows and lighting in no way gave a coloured equivalent to
light ... what could be its equivalent? Pure colour! It is our imagination which makes the
picture when we confront nature."

Echoes of Gauguin's final sentence can be found in the Japanese prints which he and the
Nabi group around him so admired. indeed Matisse himself who collected these artworks
found in them a further stimulus to the liberation of colour from a descriptive function in the
direction of an expressive function.

Before Matisse could abandon himself to the luxuriant colour manipulations of 1904 to
1907, he felt the need for a sombre reappraisal of the compositional bases of his work and
embarked on a period of consolidation in which the previous boldness of his proto-Fauve
work was temporarily laid aside. Carmelina of 1903 is dominated by ochres,
and the main compositional stress is on the interaction of a rigidly upright model
with the horizontals and verticals of studio props. Realism suppresses imagination, and the
thickly brushed-in areas recall Manet or the Cezanne of 1870.

By 1904, however, Matisse seemed purged of the dampening seriousness of the
Carmelina. The major influence of this year, the final impetus towards Fauvism proper, was
to be his association at St Tropez with Cross and Signac, whose theories he grappled with in
his Luxe, Calme et Volupte of 1904.

From statements by Matisse, and from the obvious departures he made from Signac's
art, it is clear that the rigorous demands of Divisionism did not suit his temperament. The
experience of 1904 to 1905 was, however, to have a profound effect on the first Fauve
paintings done with Derain at Collioure in the spring and summer of 1905. Matisse has
described their work at Collioure as follows:

"We stood before nature like children and we let our instincts have their way, just
improvising with no particular model whenever we turned away from nature herself. I
overdid everything as a matter of course and worked by instinct, with colour alone ".

The 1905 Salon d'Automne included works by Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Manguin,
Camoin, Marquet, Puy, Valtat, Friesz and Rouault, canvases that were to be called "an orgy
of pure tones" and which earned them the title of "Fauves".

Matisse commented on his work of this period:

"I had the sensation of an object's colouring; I applied the colour and this was the first
colour on my canvas. I added to this a second colour, and then, if this second colour did
not appear to agree with the first, instead of taking it off I added a third, which
reconciled them. I then had to continue this way until I felt that I had established a
completely harmonious canvas and that I was emptied of the emotion that made me
enjoy it."

Matisse sought a tight and tough effect. He had criticised the work of Signac and Seurat
as follows:

"The breaking up of colour leads to the breaking up of form and contour ... . Everything
is handled in the same way."

Matisse's development between 1906 and 1908 can be broadly characterised by a
comparison of landscapes done at Collioure during these years. There was an even more
pronounced tendency towards simplification and concentration of form and line, what the
artist was to refer to in his 1908 Notes of a painter as the "condensation of sensations". During
this period he made a deliberate effort to avoid contour lines. An examination of Landscape at Collioure shows one solution: flat colour patches separated by areas of white. At other times he preferred space to be suggested by the interaction of colour values in the manner of Cezanne. The influence of Cezanne (which was to be a major factor in the abandonment of the Fauve manner in 1907-1908) received additional impetus on the occasion of his 1907 retrospective exhibition at the
Salon d'Automne.

Nevertheless, the influence of Cezanne was offset by that of Gauguin. Gauguin's
retrospective of 1906 stimulated Matisse to

"... purify his modelling and contours, the better to accentuate the formal rhythms of
bodies and their expressive distortions".

La Toilette (1907) and Three Bathers (1907) show
the degree of schematisation which Matisse had adopted by this date.

<< Previous: The Fauve Style

* Drawn from notes compiled by B. Schmahmann for the University of South Africa | Contact Us | List Your Art | List Your Art Gallery | Site Map

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