Fauvism was a 20th-century movement that followed from Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. It was initially inspired by the works of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and Cezanne, the masters of the Post-Impressionist movement. The Fauves were a loosely allied group of French painters with shared interests. Matisse emerged as a clear leader of the group and this is purely because he created such an extensive amount of work and explored the concepts of Fauvism with a fervour not seen before. The Fauvists used intense colour as a vehicle for describing light and space and who redefined pure colour and form as a means of communicating the emotional state of the artist. In these regards, Fauvism proved to be an important precursor to Cubism and Expressionism as well as a touchstone for future modes of abstraction.
One of Fauvism’s major contributions to modern art was its radical goal of separating colours from each other and allowing them to exist more independently on the canvas. Before this point colour was typically thought of as a descriptive and representational mirror of the world. However here colour shifted to establish a mood and structure within the work of art without having to be true to the natural world. Another of Fauvism’s central artistic concerns was the overall balance of the composition. The Fauves simplified forms and saturated colours to draw attention to the inherent flatness of the canvas or paper. Within that pictorial space, each element played a specific role. The immediate visual impressionism of the work was to be strong and unified on the canvas. Above all though, Fauvism valued individual expression. The artists direct experience of his subjects, his emotional response to nature and his intuition were all more important than academic theory. Even the subject matter had no bearing. There was no hierarchy of importance. Each element of the painting was in place to serve these end goals.
The term Fauvism means “wild beasts.” The intensely colourful landscape and portrait paintings of the Fauvists were often characterized by a rough application of paint rendered directly from the tube, much like the Impressionists. Their work was colourful, bright, energetic and swathed in non-naturalistic hues. To the modern eye, these could be interpreted as joyful and celebratory but these were very different times and the works were actually more savage and rough around the edges. As with most other avant-garde styles, Fauvism acquired its name through an insult. Art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term in 1905 after reviewing the Salon d’Automne art exhibition in Paris, which was an annual and independent showcase of progressive art. He claimed that the Fauvists were coarse and untamed with an “orgy of colours.” The name “fauve” however would go on to become a badge of honour for the artists.
One of the most important Fauvist artists was Henri Matisse. Matisse did not seem like one to rock the boat upon first meeting him, apparently. He was quite serious, intelligent and embarking on a promising career after studying law in Paris. The life laid out before him seemed quite bourgeois and planned. However, when his mother gave him art supplies to help him recover from an illness he was, in his own words, “bitten by the demon of painting.” The tone of this statement is fitting for an artist who was responsible for the first avant-garde European art movement of the 20th century. Other prominent leaders of Fauvism were Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck and Albert Marquet. Derain was a French artist, painter and sculptor. His methods of painting were closely linked to Matisse but he showed a particular interest in cityscapes. Vlaminck was considered one of the principal members of the movement and took the ideas of post-impressionism into more vivid otherworldly colours. He often ignored the fine details of a painting, focusing his attention instead on violent colour and brushwork. Marquet painted in a more naturalistic style, primarily landscapes but also several portraits. Because of his more natural style he wasn’t quite in the same boat as the Fauvists colour wise, but he still adopted the richness of tone and looseness of brushstrokes that his companions had.
Despite its influential nature, Fauvism itself was a short-lived movement. Its assault on the stylistic conventions of art that came before, soon became a convention of its own. No longer was it a unique sentiment but rather the norm to break away from traditionalism and this in itself rendered Fauvism obsolete. By 1907 the word “fauves” had entered common usage in the Parisian art scene. Scores of artists branded themselves as aligned with the movement. On top of this, the Fauvist artists found themselves faced with challenges from newcomers. Matisse, for one, found himself increasingly responding to the work of Pablo Picasso. The intensity of their rivalry meant that the both needed to develop and evolve their own styles, lest they fall behind the other. Matisse began searching for a means to express greater simplicity in his art and Cezanne’s death and retrospective exhibition in 1907 compelled many painters to return to his structured and more geometric view of the world. With its emphasis on the emotional potency of colour, Fauvism had pioneered a new, 20th-century sensibility in modern art.