‘ Fauvism ‘

Introduction to Modern Art, 19 January 2004

Birkbeck College, University of London

Gavin Parkinson


Fauvisin is the name given to a loosely defined group of French artists, each of whom knew the work of the others, and whose painting consists of certain shared characteristics. The principal artists usually discussed within the framework of this ‘ism’ are Henri Matisse (1869- 1954), Andr� Derain (1880-1954), Maurice Vlaminck (1876-1958), and, latterly, Georges Braque (1882-1963) for the body of work they produced between roughly 1904 and 1907. Lesser artists also associated with the Fauvist ‘style’or’attitude’ are Raoul Dufy (1 877-1953), Albert Marquet (1 875-1947), and Georges Rouault (1 871-1 958).

Famously, the Fauvist ‘school’ received its name following the comment made at the Salon d’Automne of 1905 by the critic Louis Vauxcelles upon seeing the freely – painted canvases of Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck in an exhibition space shared with the more traditional sculpture of Albert Marque:’Donatello chez les fauves.’ This lecture uses the theme of tradition to critically analyse the painting of the principal Fauves. For the myth of the avant – garde is that of a group of radical artists on the fringes of what was deemed acceptable, breaking with traditional taste in terms of both technique and subject matter. Closer examination of Fauve works in the context of issues around nationalism, race, and culture, however, shows that the radicalism of the ‘wild beasts’of Vauxcelles’ witticism was, in fact, only allowed to take place within certain circumscribed limits. These were set by the traditional iconography of art, and the ongoing assimilation of artists of the preceding generation into a lineage acceptable to a notion of French taste drawn by critics and dealers.

Therefore, although the hard, brusquely applied colours of Matisse, the leading figure of Fauvism, were regarded as wild and unrefined by many, his art also safely aligned itself with a set of tried, tested, and accepted conceptual categories: Impressionism, Symbolism, French Latinity and Classicism. In the case of the first of these, the subversive force that the Impressionism of Manet, Monet, and Renoir represented was well under control by the beginning of the twentieth century. Manet ‘s art had been accepted into the mainstream and the artist himself regarded as a modern master, while that of Monet and Renoir had become diluted into illustration of the middle – classes at play. As for Symbolism, van Gogh, Gauguin, and Seurat were all dead by the time of the advent of Fauvism, and their achievements had earned them a growing following among Symbolist critics. In addition, and in spite of its fascination with death, decay, and eroticism, the art of Gustave Moreau (1826-98) had always respected the canon. Matisse ‘s time spent as a student of Moreau from 1895 to 1898 is significant here, helping to explain his choice of subject matter as well as the experimentalism of his technique. The notions of French Latinity and Classicism should be interrogated at length, particularly their assumption of a racial superiority which entails a mythic view of the Mediterranean as the site of a’Golden Age,’ and their adoption of a grande tradition which extended from the artists of Greek and Roman antiquity, through the Renaissance, Poussin, Ingres, and Corot, to the modem classics such as Cezanne and, ultimately, the ‘wild beasts’ themselves.


Note the quote given elsewhere is:

C’ est Donatello dans la cage aux fauves !

— Louis Vauxcelles, Salon d’Automne, 1905.

Leave a Reply