Fauvism, a relatively short-lived movement in French painting (from about 1898 to about 1908) that revolutionized the concept of color in modern art. The fauves rejected the impressionist palette of soft, shimmering tones in favor of the violent colors used by the postimpressionists Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh for expressive emphasis. They achieved a poetic energy through vigorous line, simplified yet dramatic surface pattern, and intense color.
Les fauves, literally “the wild beasts,” was originally a pejorative label applied to the group at their first exhibition in 1905, although the fauvist style had been employed by the group's members for several years before that date. The artists included AndrĂ© Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy, Georges Braque, Henri Manguin, Albert Marquet, Jean Puy, Emile Othon Friesz, and Henri Matisse, their undisputed leader. The epithet was never accepted by the painters themselves and, indeed, in no way does it describe their sunny or lyrically subjective imagery.
Technically, the fauvist use of color derived from experiments made by Matisse at Saint-Tropez in the summer of 1904, working with the neoimpressionist painters who placed small dabs of pure color side by side to achieve an even more optically correct image than that of the impressionists. Matisse's neoimpressionist pictures, while abiding strictly by the rules, show, beyond a mere recording of optical response, a strong interest in lyrical color.
In the summer of 1905, Matisse and Derain painted together at Collioure in “a golden light that eliminates shadows.” They began to use pure complementary colors applied in flat, vigorous strokes, achieving an equivalent rather than a description of light. In their high-key colors these pictures dazzle the viewer with Mediterranean sunshine. When a neighboring collector showed them some South Seas pictures by Gauguin, they saw their theories of subjective color confirmed, and fauvism was born.
Matisse made the final break with optical color; a woman's nose could be flat green if it added to the color composition and expression of the painting. Matisse said, “I do not paint women; I paint pictures.”
Each of the painters experimented with the principles of the style in his own way. By about 1908, however, all had forsaken strict adherence to the mannerisms of a school. With color firmly established as a personally expressive element of painting, each went his own way.
Influencing Factors on Fauvism
Cultural historians have related the fragmentation of form in late-19th- and early-20th-century art to the fragmentation of society at the time. The increasing technological aspirations of the industrial revolution widened the rift between the middle and the working classes. Women demanded the vote and equal rights. And the view of the mind presented by the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, stipulated that the human psyche, far from being unified, was fraught with emotional conflicts and contradictions. The discovery of X rays, physicist Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, and other technological innovations suggested that our visual experience no longer corresponded with science's view of the world.
Not surprisingly, various forms of artistic creativity reflected these tensions and developments. In literature, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf experimented with narrative structure, grammar, syntax, and spelling. In dance, Sergey Diaghilev, Isadora Duncan, and Loie Fuller experimented with unconventional choreography and costume. And in music, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky composed pieces that did not depend on traditional tonal structure.
Music not only took its place among the most experimental of the arts, but it also became a great inspiration for visual artists. Many art critics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were influenced by German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, who had proclaimed that music was the most powerful of all the arts because it managed to suggest emotions directly, not by copying the world. Many painters of the late-19th-century symbolist movement, including Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, tried to emulate music’s power of direct suggestion. By including abstract forms and depicting an imaginary, rather than an observable, reality in their paintings, Redon and the symbolists paved the way for abstract art.
The idea that art could approximate music is reflected in Henri Matisse's Red Room (Harmony in Red) (1909, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia), a painting whose subtitle is borrowed from musical terminology. From Gauguin, Matisse borrowed large areas of unvaried color, simplified shapes, and heavy contour lines. The simplicity of Matisse’s drawing style relates to Gauguin's fascination with the art of non-Western cultures. Matisse also employed the abstract designs of carpets and textiles, reinforcing the flatness of the painting rather than attempting to create the illusion of depth. His interest in these designs demonstrates the influence of forms of creativity not often associated with fine art.
Although Red Room was intended as a pleasing image of middle-class domesticity, Matisse’s manner of depiction was considered highly revolutionary, especially in the way he assigned intense colors to objects arbitrarily and not according to their appearance in nature. A scandalized contemporary critic declared Matisse and his fellow artists—AndrĂ© Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Georges Braque (of France), and Kees van Dongen (of the Netherlands)—to be fauves (French for “wild beasts”). This derogatory term became the name of their movement. Fauvism lasted only from about 1898 to 1908, but it had an enduring impact on 20th-century art.


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