The Reign of Colour
Step into the world of early 20th-century art and discover Fauvism―an art style that was initially met with ridicule. Led by artists such as Henri Matisse, André Derain, and Maurice de Vlaminck, this group of like-minded creatives defied traditional artistic conventions and embraced a revolutionary approach to color usage.
It was modernist art critic Louis Vauxcelles who witnessed the radical paintings of the Fauvists at the 1905 Fall Salon (Salon d’Automne) exhibition in Paris and coined the name “Les Fauves” (meaning “the savages” or “the wild beasts” in French). This new artistic movement marked the beginning of the 20th-century avant-garde, which challenged the boundaries of traditional art forms. It was a daring and groundbreaking art style that pushed the boundaries of what was considered “acceptable” in the art world.
Henri Matisse. Luxe, Calme et Volupté, 1904. Oil on canvas. 38 × 46 in. (98 × 118 cm). Museé d’Orsay, Paris.
A short-lived but revolutionary trend that emerged between 1905 and 1908, Fauvism embraced a simpler and more emotional form of expression, with artists using color as a tool to convey their innermost feelings and ideas. Fauvist artists were innovators who weren’t afraid to experiment with exaggerated hues and wild color contrasts, favoring combinations like purple and yellow, orange and blue, or magenta and green. Unlike some post-impressionists, who chose colors based on scientific theory (remember the episode about Georges Seurat and his pointillism approach?), the Fauvists relied on their own observation, intuition, and emotions to guide their color choices.
But it wasn’t just about the colors themselves. Fauvists also rejected the idea of optical realism and instead focused on capturing spontaneous and subjective responses to their subjects. They used broken brushstrokes and colors straight from the tub, creating expressive and emotionally charged artworks that shattered the boundaries of traditional art forms.
André Derain. Mountains at Collioure, 1905. Oil on canvas. 32 × 39 1/2 in. (81 × 100 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
In 1905, Henri Matisse and a group of fellow artists rebelled against the traditional Salon by hosting their own exhibition―the first Fall Salon. By this time, Fauvism already developed a unique style, evident in Mountains at Collioure (1905) by André Derain. Derain painted each color boldly onto the canvas without blending them together. He also didn’t paint the landscape in a realistic way. Instead, he used a mix of green and complementary shades of blue, which created a surreal effect and made it look different from the real world. Derain likens his coloration to “sticks of dynamite,” the scene exploding off the canvas toward the viewer.
Henri Matisse. The Joy of Life (Bonheur de Vivre), 1905-06. Oil on canvas. 69 1/2 × 94 3/4 in. (176 × 241 cm). Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
The first Fall Salon caused a scandal, so Matisse reacted with what would become the quintessential work of Fauvism: The Joy of Life (1905). Matisse reconfigures the conventional pastoral and nude to embrace his innovations. The perspective has been completely flattened, and the bodies and trees are contoured with bold lines in folk-art fashion. Yet the expressive palette remains the most striking element.
Critic Gelette Burgess would provide a sarcastic description of this coloration during his 1910 review that would become America’s initial introduction to the Parisian avant-garde: “If you can imagine what a particularly sanguinary little girl of eight, half-crazed with gin, would do to a whitewashed wall if left alone with a box of crayons, then you will come near to fancying what most of this work was like.” Nevertheless, the viewer cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the energy and passion evoked by the bodacious hues and soaring lines.
Maurice de Vlaminck. The River Seine at Chatou, 1906. Oil on canvas. 32 1/8 × 39 3/4 in. (81 × 101 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Maurice de Vlaminck. Autumn Landscape, c. 1905. Oil on canvas. 18 1/4 × 21 3/4 in. (46 × 55 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Color was the primary way the Fauvist artists expressed themselves, even if it meant not making things look natural. The perfect example is Maurice de Vlaminck’s Autumn Landscape (c. 1905), where the colors are so saturated they take over the painting. Plants are reduced to flames of red, contrasting with a chaotic sea of blues at the top of the canvas. For Vlaminck, Fauvism was more than expression—it was rebellion!
Although the Fauvists moved on to other styles soon after, their ideas would live on through the Expressionists and Cubists, offering new standards for entering into an artwork.
“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” ―Henri Matisse
“From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.” ―Henri Matisse
“We become intoxicated with color, with words that speak of color, and with the sun that makes colors brighter.” ―Andre Derain
“Fauvism was our ordeal by fire...colours became charges of dynamite. They were expected to charge light...The great merit of this method was to free the picture from all imitative and conventional contact.” ―Andre Derain
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