In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Impressionism was widespread and popular. The way that the movement worked to capture the effects of light on its soft and serene landscapes and city scenes had also captivated widespread public attention. The movement was named after Monet’s highly respected and famous ‘Impression: Sunrise’ painting.
Fauvism was born from this artistic context, as a reaction to what it saw around it. Bold unnatural colors and simplistic, expressive forms, figures and landscapes characterized the movement. The artworks favored painterly qualities and championed expression and aesthetic impact over representational likeness.
The artists that worked in this style often squeezed paint straight from the tube onto the canvas, without mixing or altering the colors. Each painting was often made up of bright, contrasting colors that bore no resemblance to the subject.
Faces could be lime green and bright crimson, or midnight blue with orange and yellow splashes of color. For the Fauvists, they were not trying to carefully represent and depict a scene accurately according to the light and atmosphere. They wanted to release the inner creative desires. Their work fully embraced the bestial, primal side of human nature. Working in an expressive, raw fashion allowed the artists to tap into this and create artworks that were bold and moving. In the midst of the serenity of Impressionism, The Fauvists were animalistic and visually wild, and this contrast with the tastes of the time only made their work even more exhilarating.
The ‘Wild Beasts’
The name ‘Les Fauves’ translates as ‘Wild beasts’ in French, and the artists became known collectively as the Fauvists. It arose during an exhibition in 1905 at the Salon d’Automne. Loris Vauxcelles, a critic of the time, shocked at the artworks, declared the artists as ‘wild beasts’. The artists, highly pleased with the controversial and exciting new name, seemed delighted with the description and the name stuck.
Van Gogh, Gauguin, Signac, Cezanne and Seurat were a few of the major artists that influenced fauvism. The Fauvist paintings often edged towards abstraction with their flat and rough areas of bright colours. From Cezanne, they worked with the subject and broke it down into sections and slabs, rebuilding images using basic forms.
Gauguin was also a large influence. The Fauves drew from his expressive and otherworldly artworks. His character and lifestyle embodied the wilder side of the human spirit that wished to re-engage with the natural world and to live simply and freely. Gauguin left the western world and sailed off to Tahiti to live and work. Local islanders, mythical figures and the gods and demons of this distant culture seeped into his work, and he created enchanting and unforgettable artworks as a result. The Fauvists looked up to his total immersion and commitment to his artistic practice, and the way that he brought wildness and passion into his artwork.
Matisse became one of the largest figureheads that the Artworld has ever known, and he maintained a wildly expressive element to his work throughout his entire career. The Fauvists did initially receive a great deal of a negative backlash for their artworks and beliefs. Matisse himself was particularly disheartened by these bad reviews, but Gertrude Stein made purchases and offered assistance, and this encouragement was important for his artistic career.
Important Artwork: ‘Portrait of Madame Matisse’ by Henri Matisse.
This painting of his wife is a great example of all the core elements that defined Fauvism. The canvas was completed in 1906, and can be found in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, Denmark. His wife gazes slightly away from the viewer’s eyes, and her face is marked by a green stripe that runs from the top of her forehead down to her lips. The background is divided into blocks of violet, orange tinted red, and green. Matisse has used thick dark brushstrokes to mark the features and outlines.
The impressionists built up forms based on how the dawn, dusk or other lighting conditions affected the subject of their paintings. The shapes were loose, fluid, and suggestive, and you can see the difference in painting styles when you compare Matisse’s dark lines with the style and techniques of the former.
When you think about this contrast, it becomes easier to image the outrage that this caused. In hindsight, the Fauvist paintings do not come across as shocking to modern tastes, but when imagined in their correct historical context, these were controversial artworks. Their work has huge repercussions for the way that color and form were used by the painters of successive generations. The roughness, and their insistence on wildness, was also a factor that caused the artworks of the Fauvists to be highly significant within the canon of Art history.
Key Artists: Maurice de Vlaminck, Andre Derain, Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet, Kees van Dongen, Jean Puy and Charles Camoin.