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An exhibition was organised in Paris in 1905 that contained a hall filled with paintings of pure, very contrasting colours. The paintings were made with much enthusiasm and passion. They used such violent colours that a critic called the painters "Les Fauves", for "wild animals". That name continued to be used. The Fauves stayed together as a group only for a short term, from about 1905 to 1908.


The Nabis was a group of French artists who worked at the end of the nineteenth century. "Le Nabis" means "The Prophets", as "Nabi" means "prophet" in Hebrew. The group was formed in 1888; the name may have been first used in correspondence of the painter Paul Sérusier.
The pictures of Gauguin and of Van Gogh, all in pure colours, inspired the Nabis. The Nabis painters said that objects in painting were nothing more than coloured areas on a flat canvas. These painters sought decorative effects with colours, on an otherwise flat space of the canvas. As such they are often cited as belonging to the "Art Nouveau" movement. The Nabis technique thus was the juxtaposition of large uni-coloured areas of colours. They can be regarded as precursors of Fauvism. Members of this group were mainly Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Aristide Maillol, Félix Valloton, Paul and France Ranson, and Edouard Vuillard.

The Fauvists

The Fauvists were colourists before anything else. They did not draw before applying paint, and they did not shrink away from using unexpected directions in their pictures. In later periods however, Fauvists returned to coloured lines brought on the canvas in fluent and very visible brushstrokes. The Fauves used colour as almost the only formal element of painting.

In Fauvist pictures composition and forms had a subordinate role to colour. Yet, forms gradually became more sophisticated and more curved and accentuated by lines without coloured surfaces, such as with pictures of Henri Matisse. The Fauves had no common style beyond the use of colour. Colour was their form.

Fauvism manifested itself in the contrasting bright colours, dynamic brushstrokes and by the expressive strength of the paintings delivered by these colours. Colours were used in unexpected combinations, and the Fauvists also modified the natural tones of colours to exaggerated tones of special brilliance. Paint was sometimes lavishly applied, sometimes thinly, but always in broad areas. The Fauvists applied colour in a very personal, subjective way. Colour became even more an aim than for the Impressionists. They used sharp colour contrasts and visible brushstrokes. They also gave unexpected colours to objects, such as blue for trees.

Fauvist paintings present a joyful, playful world of strong emotions in colours. They showed great freedom of expression in subjects and means. They used mostly scenes of everyday life, but their figures and shapes were subordinated to colour and played more a decorative role than a role of content. The Fauvists were not interested in the details of their landscapes or figures or other subjects. The expression counted first. They remained figurative, and humans figures were still often represented. They painted landscapes, nudes, portraits and still lives.

The Fauvists exaggerated drawing and perspective.

Fauvist painters were André Derain, Kees Van Dongen, Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy, Albert Marquet, Louis Valtat, Henri-Charles Manguin, Jean Puy, Othon Friesz, and briefly also Georges Braque and Georges Rouault.

Fauvism can be considered, like Divisionism, as an evolution to the extremes of Impressionism. Fauvists used harsher, ever more brilliant and unexpected colours in ever broader and more visible brushstrokes. In their paintings Fauvists used the same content, forms and composition as the Impressionists, but often and towards the later periods of the movement, the representation of the idea in simple forms and colour only became more pronounced.

A Parisian from Montmartre

Kees van Dongen (1877-1968). Musée André Malraux. Le Havre. 1903.

The portrait shows a pale face over a white bust. The painting is bright and the colours splendid; the colours take the viewer straight in. In any museum, a picture like this would strike you instantly among other paintings by its garish hues, and therefore catch your eye immediately. The whitish yellow hits the eye as it is set against the background of black, and the pink flowers of the wide hat, worn with dash by the Parisian beauty, break the normal balance of emphasis on the lower part of the picture.

Kees van Dongen’s portrait uses only colour as the sole formal element of the painting. We see no lines but the contours created logically by the transitions of the colour surfaces. These contrasts are always violent and opposing. There is yellow confronted with black and grey. The whitish yellow is accompanied by green, and also red colours are juxtaposed with another green hue. The brown is painted against the red and white, and red conflicts in the luxurious hat.
Van Dongen used all but natural colours in all of this. The face of the Montmartre lady is not painted in the rosy, pale fleshy colours of a young woman. We see harsh yellow and, where the light is, even white patches; the shadows of the face are green. Green is not the complementary colour of yellow, so this green chiaroscuro is far form normal. Van Dongen simply used the green to represent a darker tone. More shadow is around the eyes, and there van Dongen placed violet colours, darker even than the green, but neither complementary to green nor to yellow. The painter used deliberately the wrong colours for the shadows, knowing that anyhow painting is but an illusion, and the chosen hues suit as well to show volume in the face as other, more natural colours. He introduced deliberately colours of which he knew that they were not harmonious, colours that contrasted fiercely an fought on the face. Still, with these he chiselled the face in a few brushstrokes. The only natural colours might be in the painted lips of the mouth, but the red there is really too bright and too attractive to be natural hues. Remark how, with a few touches of the brush, van Dongen depicted the slightly opened mouth.

Under the face are the same colours. There too is the whitish yellow. Even if the viewer’s gaze would be caught by the bright colour of the bust, the pyramidal very traditional composition would always lead the eye back to the face. To enhance the brightness, van Dongen surrounded the head and bust with dark tones of black and grey. This also was a tradition in painting, as it realised what Michel-Eugène Chevreul described to be the livening of whiter hues against darker tones. This is one of the effects of the simultaneous contrast of colours.

We hardly see the thick brown-red hair of the Montmartre lady appear above her head and then van Dongen pushed the hair in the wide Parisian hat. The painter inverted here the pyramid with a wide dash of red and green colours representing roses so that the picture renders an innovative view. Here, the colours are vibrant and the brushstrokes circling. Whereas in the lower part of the painting we find more stern directions, the round forms of the flowers in the hat provide the dash of the provocative. The double pyramid was not so innovative for a composition, since Pieter Paul Rubens for instance made a wonderful portrait of his wife with a wide hat, but of course the scale and garishness of the colours form the difference. The inverted pyramid brings the viewer’s eye back to the face, and in the face to the deep eyes.

Van Dongen painted the eyes of his model black and large. This was one of the common characteristics of eyes of female portraits by this painter. Here it makes the woman look into the far, forward, but always past the viewer, not aimed to take in the eyes of the viewer too.

This is a portrait of a distinguished, respectable lady of Montmartre. The colours of the shirt are not flamboyant. Van Dongen could have painted here blue and red colours, but he chose a uniform white and used some yellow as shadow. This gives the viewer an impression of distance, but also of respectability. The lady’s shirt even has a high collar, subtly suggested, and the collar is firmly closed by a brown wisp of a masculine cravat.
The woman has full red lips, but the upper lip is thin, suggesting determination and decisiveness. At the same time, the open mouth is inviting. Here is an intelligent woman with a will of her own and a mind of her own. But this lady also likes to dance, be wild at times, as suggested by the frivolity of the flowers in her hat. After all, this is a Montmartre lady and no one is very serious in Montmartre. Kees van Dongen was thus able with only a few colours to draw clearly the psychology of a Parisian lady. How different is this picture from Gustave Klimt's Adèle Bloch Bauer, yet both these ladies were strikingly outrageous for their times!

Kees van Dongen’s real name was Cornelis Theodorus Marie van Dongen. He was Dutch, born in 1877 in Delfshaven. He studied painting in Rotterdam, but after a visit to Paris in 1897 he decided to live there and installed himself in an apartment in 1898. Later, he moved to the building called "Le Bateau Lavoir", where several other avant-garde painters lived, among them Pablo Picasso. Van Dongen painted in Paris, but also worked much for magazines as an illustrator. He met many other artists in Paris and saw the great variety of painterly styles that clashed in Paris around the change of the century. His gallery was the Kahnweiler Gallery, which was dedicated to many other avant-garde painters. He knew Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Georges Rouault and Frantisek Kupka.
Around 1907 van Dongen linked with the painters of the German movement called "Die Brücke". He exhibited much in Germany, in Berlin and Munich before the First World War. Indeed, the German Expressionists and mostly the painters of the Munich movement "Der Blaue Reiter" worked much like the Fauvists. They also applied vivid colours like the French "Les Fauves", to which movement van Dongen vowed. Wassily Kandinsky, Alexei Jawlensky and Gabriele Münter started their Expressionism in the harsh colours of the French Fauves. Between the two world wars, van Dongen stayed loyal to his colourful style and he was a well-known, much sought after painter of female portraits.

Kees van Dongen was much a Fauve. The name was given during the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1905. When painters who all, like van Dongen, showed violent colours, exhibited together at this Salon, they were much criticised. Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain hung paintings of a new trend in art. A critic at the 1905 exhibition gave the name of "Les Fauves". It came from the title of a statue shown at the exhibition with the title "Donatello au milieu des Fauves".
The colours of these artists were indeed wild, always contrasted violently, and were garish and rarely natural. Henri Matisse painted naked women in bright red; Derain painted the Charing Cross Bridge in the purest blue and Raoul Dufy showed the Marie-Christine Casino of Le Havre in whitest white. Colour had been brought to the forefront since a long time by the Impressionists and the Divisionists, but for these artists the content of real landscapes and subjects with natural hues still dominated. Colours were imitated as they were in nature, and were only slightly adapted to the mood of the pictures. Of course, with time these artists also had remarked that colours could be used that differed far from the natural tones.

The Fauves fully exploited colour for colour’s sake. They showed for the first time how unusual, unnatural hues could be applied on canvases, and yet they arrived at strong, quite recognisable content. They used strong and few brushstrokes. Chiaroscuro, depth and space were not a must for these painters. Often they left their pictures unfinished in places. This all emphasised the idea that anyway all painting was illusion, so natural colours were after all not so necessary, and content could be recognised with any colour.
Van Dongen thus obtained very recognisable forms in his portraits of women through colour alone. Yet, he arrived equally at very strong expression of psychology. He proved by his colour language the strong suggestive character of colour alone, and in that he joined the German artists of "Die Brücke" and "Der Blaue Reiter". The Expressionist aspect of the Fauves, a French movement, has not been very much underscored in art history, probably because the Fauves are seen as a normal evolution of the attention given to colour by the Impressionists. The Fauves also were French, whereas Expressionism is usually regarded as primarily a German phenomenon.

The Fauves and the colour Expressionists of Germany opened the road to further experimentation with colour. Experiments in which content would be abandoned for colour only, would almost simultaneously emerge in the French Orphists. Wassily Kandinsky made paintings in his first years at Murnau that were very much Fauvist pictures before he reached abstraction.
A precursor of Fauvist painting had been van Dongen, as in the "A Parisian Woman of Montmartre", dating from 1903, a couple of years before the famous exhibition of 1905, in which the Fauvist movement was recognised.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: November 2010
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