Ten Famous Pieces of the Fauvist Art Movement

Henri Matisse - Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Wikimedia Commons).

Burning as brightly as the colors that illuminated the canvas, Fauvism burst onto the art scene at an exhibition at the salon d’automne in Paris, 1905 in a frenzy of unnatural color and excitement. Dubbed the les fauves (the wild beasts) by the critic Louis Vauxcelles, these wild men of art, spearheaded by Henri Matisse and André Derain, employed bold, non-naturalistic colours to shake up the art world. For a few short years, they were at the forefront of revolutionary art.

“When I put down a green, it doesn’t mean grass; and when I put down a blue, it doesn’t mean the sky”

Henri Matisse

Nothing like it had gone before. The Fauves’ paintings were purged of shadows, and imaginative, unencumbered colors used in their stead. The paint was often applied directly from the tube in wild, loose dabs of color with simplified forms and subjects giving paintings a typically Fauvist abstract aesthetic.

To audiences in 1905, this was unheard of. Naturalism of form and subject was the standard for art and had been for centuries, so the arrival of Fauvism from a collection of French painters was a wild, bold and non-representative splash of color in a traditional art world. They really were the wild beasts of art.

Interested in scientific colour theories developed in the 19th century, in particular those related to complementary colours, the Fauvism movement can be seen as extreme extension of the Post-Impressionism of Vincent Van Gogh, as shown in the impasto application of color on many Fauvist canvases, while the spontaneous brushwork could be seen as a form of Expressionism.

But, by 1908 the fire of Fauvism had been extinguished and many of the artists had moved away from its expressive emotionalism. Despite its short history, Fauvism left behind a rich heritage; in just three short years the wild beasts’ development in abstraction and simplification paved the way for subsequent movements like Cubism and Expressionism. It was one of the first avant-garde Modernist movements of the 20th century and art has continued to contradict norms and expectations ever since. But the Fauves remain wild beasts today thanks to their pioneering and progressive approach, as these examples prove. 

Woman With a Hat by Henri Matisse (1905)

Henri Matisse – Woman With a Hat.

Henri Matisse – Woman With a Hat (Wikimedia Commons).

This was where it all began for the Fauvist movement, and for Henri Matisse. The year was 1905 and Woman With a Hat found itself at the center of the controversy that led to the christening of the first modern art movement of the 20th century when shown at Salon d’Automne, Paris.

The audience reaction was one of alarm. Matisse’s use of non-naturalistic colors and loose brushwork that had an unfinished look shocked art enthusiasts more accustomed to traditional modes of painting, with real life representations of color and form. It also marked a stylistic change from the Divisionism-influenced brushstrokes of Matisse’s earlier work to an individual style that would come to embody his work.

The painting depicts Matisse’s wife, Amélie posing in typical French bourgeoisie style in a colorful dress and wearing an elaborate hat, with a fan in her gloved hand. And while Amélie’s outfit is expressive, it’s the vibrant, clashing hues that offer the most expression. This vibrancy of color was all created from the artistic mind of Matisse, as when asked what his wife was wearing for the portrait, the artist allegedly replied, “black, of course.”

Today, the painting is seen as a high watermark in the advancement of Post-Impressionism at the start of the 20th century. At the time, though,  it also drew fierce reaction with the critic Camille Mauclair declaring, “a pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public”. This was nothing new for Matisse; the start of the century had seen him struggle with commercial success. Luckily for him, he had one notable admirer though who would not only change the course of his career, but also elevate him towards critical and commercial success. That person was the renowned author, poet and art collector, Gertrude Stein. Stein bought Woman with a Hat and welcomed him to her renowned Saturday evening gatherings at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris for avant-garde artists and writers. The painting was subsequently bought in the 1950s by the Haas family, one of the USA’s richest families, before being bequeathed to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1990.

Charing Cross Bridge, London by Andre Derain (1906)

Framed André Derain Print of Charing Cross Bridge, London.

André Derain – Framed Print of Charing Cross Bridge, London. Auction passed (est: $50 – $100) via Greenwich Auction (April 2021).

Andre Derain’s technicolor ascent into Fauvism was aided by his close friend and artistic rival Henri Matisse, but it was during a trip to London in 1906 when produced approximately 30 paintings that he painted one of the greatest examples of Fauvist art. 

Illuminated by a bounty of bright colors that weren’t derived from reality, the London scene is one of the most remarkable ever produced of the capital. Buildings are adorned in blue, the trees are red, and the yellow sky all contribute to a piece that exemplifies the early characteristics of Fauvism thanks to its small, disjointed brushstrokes, and its unblended quality. 

“Fauvism was our ordeal by fire… It was the era of photography,” said Derain. “This may have influenced us, and played a part in our reaction against anything resembling a snapshot of life. No matter how far we moved away from things … it was never far enough. Colors became charges of dynamite.”

Unlike his friend and rival, Matisse, Derain strayed from Fauvism in his later career as the movement began to fade from focus, instead opting for a more conventional neoclassical style following his military service in World War I. This change in approach is best shown in his The Girl Cutting Apple (1938). His Fauvist fancy lives on though and Charing Cross can today be seen in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Jeu de Massacre by Georges Rouault (1905)

Georges Rouault - Jeu de Massacre (Wikimedia Commons).

Georges Rouault – Jeu de Massacre (Wikimedia Commons).

Unlike his friend and fauvist leader Matisse, Georges Rouault avoided the bright, unnatural colors of his contemporaries. Instead, he brought a more somber and psychologically observant approach to his early Fauvist work, as shown in his Jeu de Massacre.

Depicting the traditional ‘Aunt Sally’ pub game (apparently popular in France during this time period) in which the players throw items at a model old woman’s head, Rouault’s impasto application of paint and his dense brushwork mark him out as a follower of the Fauvist school of thinking – but that’s where the comparison ends. 

Instead, his use of darker colors highlighted him among his dayglow contemporaries, as his approach echoed his intense observation of human suffering. But, like the Fauvist movement, his interest in this approach began to wane and his spiritual and artistic interests soon led him in a different direction. Rouault would go on to become one of the most passionate Christian artist of the 20th century. His dalliance with Fauvism though is still available to view in Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

La jetée à L’Estaque by Andre Derain (1906)

André Derain, La jetée à L'Estaque.

André Derain, La jetée à L’Estaque (Wikimedia Commons).

Fauvism was as much a forerunner as it was a thrilling rebel movement against the constraints of art and Andre Derain’s La jetée à L’Estaque perfectly exemplifies this insurgency of refusing to conform to expectations of art.

The landscape of La jetée à L’Estaque (The pier at L’Estaque, a village in southern France) placed a strong focus on abstraction and simplified forms, which the Fauves were among the first to do. Similarly, following the formula that had helped to establish the group of French painters, La jetée à L’Estaque didn’t focus on adding any depth or form to the canvas, as the landscape is painted with nothing but simple color shapes and lines.

“We were always intoxicated with color, with words that speak of color, and with the sun that makes colors live,” said André Derain of his artistic approach and that playfulness with color is again evident, as where expectation of color is present, imagination stands in its place.

The River Seine at Chatou by Maurice de Vlaminck (1906)

Maurice de Vlaminck - The Seine at Chatou

Maurice de Vlaminck – The Seine at Chatou (Wikimedia Commons).

Maurice de Vlaminck painted how he saw, and more importantly how he experienced the landscape, saying, “I try to paint with my heart and my guts without worrying about style.” This approach placed him in the Fauvist band of painters, which was hardly a surprise considering he shared a studio on the island of Chatou with André Derain in 1900. Working alongside each other, they formed the School of Chatou, which was characterized by bright colors and bold brushstrokes, and proved to be a catalyst for Fauvism.

He lived in Chatou with his wife and children, and worked as a professional cyclist and an itinerant violinist, before the Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard purchased de Vlaminck’s stock of paintings early in 1906, giving him the financial freedom to concentrate on painting. 

His approach was typified by undisguised brushwork and intuitive application of paint in the style of his hero Vincent Van Gogh, whose expressive style he so adored and emulated with his short strokes of impasto color, in which paint is laid on an area of the surface thickly, so that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible.

Applying his paint in daubs and swirls of pigment directly from the tube, his approach was typically Fauvist, but his application of color was more conventional, as can be seen by the white houses, green leaves, reddish-orange tree trunks, and the blue, red, and white trawler in the background. See the impasto painting for yourself at The Met.

Le Bonheur de Vivre by Henri Matisse (1905-06)

Henri Matisse - Le Bonheur de Vivre.

Henri Matisse – Le Bonheur de Vivre (Wikimedia Commons).

Regarded as one of the pillars of early modernism, alongside Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Le Bonheur de Vivre was first exhibited in Paris in 1906 at the Salon des Indépendants to a shocked audience. The scene and subject of figures dancing and playing music in a natural woodland setting was familiar to them – this had been fodder for artists for centuries – but the application of bold colors was outrageous to their sensibilities. Add in the jarring shifts in scale as well as the subject’s distorted anatomies and it’s a recipe for outrage for conservative art tastes at the start of the 20th century. 

The large-scale painting measures six feet by eight feet and brings to mind Cezanne’s Bathers, but the similarities end there. As with earlier Fauvist paintings, color is representative of emotional expression and not the realities of nature, giving the painting a dreamlike quality. 

Le Bonheur de Vivre was purchased by Gertrude Stein who would later write, “Matisse painted Le Bonheur de Vivre and created a new formula for color that would leave its mark on every painter of the period.” It certainly left its mark on Pablo Picasso, who saw the painting at one of Stein’s artistic gatherings at 27 rue de Fleurus, and painted his 1907 canvas, Demoiselles d’Avignon in response. Le Bonheur de Vivre is currently hung in Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where viewers can see a  group of figures in the background that look familiar to his painting The Dance (1909–10), but more on that later.

Le Viaduc à L’Estaque by Georges Braque (1908)

Georges Braque’s artistic influence was as diverse as they come in the early years of the 1900s – but Fauvism was the catalyst. After seeing one of only three of the Fauvist exhibitions to take place, Braque adapted his Impressionist style.

He would go on to play a significant role in the development of Cubism with his friend Pablo Picasso and by 1908, as the thrill and excitement of Fauvism was beginning to lose its luster, Braque painted Le Viaduc à L’Estaque, which hints at the eminent Cubist’s beginnings of his love of the cube. 

The landscapes of L’Estaque provided a popular location with French artists of the day. Notably Braque, André Derain and Paul Cézanne. Braque saw the landscape differently to Cezanne though, as shown by the use of non-natural Fauvist color and a simplification of form.

Also evident in this painting is Braque’s interest in volume, which he would explore later in life. The multiple perspectives on show in the rounded arches of the viaduct, enveloped by the vigorously brushed greenery that surround it in a variety of exciting and imagined tones can be seen in person at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Jeanne dans les fleurs by Raoul Dufy (1907)

Raoul Dufy - Jeanne dans les fleurs by (1907) (WikiArt).

Raoul Dufy – Jeanne dans les fleurs by (1907) (WikiArt).

Henri Matisse‘s Luxe, Calme et Volupté had a huge influence on artists, particularly French artists, and Raoul Dufy was no exception after seeing the significant painting at the Salon des Indépendants in 1905. Thus began his brief fascination with Fauvism, which is perfectly exemplified in the painting of his sister, Jeanne dans les fleurs (Jeanne with flowers).

Inspired by the natural setting of his family’s home in the Normandy town of Le Havre, Dufy was fond of painting gardens and flowers, but his Fauvist inspiration shines through, most notably in his sister’s face, which is adorned in an unnatural greenish hue to match the garden setting. 

Perfectly exemplifying his new found Fauvist freedom from realistic depiction in his painting, and instead using color as a tool of emotional power, Dufy’s raw brushwork is typical of Fauvism in this tightly cropped painting, which ambiguously mingles foreground and background.

Unlike many of the Fauvist pieces from the era, this one wasn’t purchased by Gertrude Stein. Rather it remains in Europe at the Musée d’art Moderne Andre Malraux, Le Havre, France. That’s not to say that Stein wasn’t a fan of Dufy, of whom she said “You have to really love what is to have pleasure and Dufy does really love what is and we have the pleasure.

Pinède à Cassis (Landscape) by André Derain (1907)

André Derain - Paysage à Cassis.

André Derain – Paysage à Cassis. Sold for $1,470,000 via Christie’s (November 2021).

Together with Matisse, Derain would spend summers near Cassis, in the south of France. During these artistic adventures, the pair created a number of masterpieces. 

One was the quite severe Pinède à Cassis (Landscape). It’s not shy in its grounding as a modernist master, incorporating as it does bright and fiery colors across the terrain, alongside sharp angles and object definition, which shows its stylistic blend between Fauvism and Cubism.

Influenced by Divisionist painting, Derain’s use of long, isolated brushstrokes can be seen in the outline of the trees and ground of his landscape. But it’s the color that shines, even burns, through the painting, as the obvious contrast of the green trees and the scorched red and orange land suggest the shimmering heat of a Mediterranean summer.

Sometimes unnatural (the tree trunks are almost green, for example) the colors in Landscape are non-representational and the landscape is abstracted. Perhaps suitably for a painting of southern France, the original hangs in Musée Cantini in Marseille

La Danse by Henri Matisse (1901) 

Henri Matisse – La Danse (1938).

Henri Matisse – La Danse (1938). Sold for Sold for £2,729,250 via Christie’s (February 2013).

La Danse marked the swansong for Fauvism, just five short years after its inception. Cubism was on the modernist horizon and the collection of French painters that had joined the Fauvist movement would soon move onto other styles and influences, with fellow Fauvist pioneer Derain embracing traditionalism, while Matisse’s work softened with age as he later moved into cut-out compositions. 

First exhibited at the Salon d’Automne, Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées, Paris in 1910, La Danse utilizes a centuries-old motif of figures in a circular dance. But Matisse simplified and distorted his dancers’ anatomy for expressive purposes to give them a vibrant, non-naturalistic power that emphasizes the primordial aspect of dance.

The red dancers bounce off the canvas, set against a flat background of blue sky and green earth. Dancers push up against the edge of the composition, as if their energy can barely be contained, with the figure in the foreground swung from their feet. 

Commissioned as a companion piece to his painting, Musique, for Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin, La Danse brought down the curtain on Fauvism and is today seen as a modern master. And while many viewers at the time struggled see past the relatively new and imposing style of the painting, today it is a highly appreciated ode to life, joy and nature from an influential master of expressive color, who – once derided – would become one of the most important artists of the 20th century.  

The piece hung on Shchukin’s wall until the Russian Revolution of 1917 and can today be found in The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia. Alternatively, a preliminary version of this work, known as Danse (I), which Matisse called “the overpowering climax of luminosity” can be seen in Museum of Modern Art, New York.