Fauvism – ‘The art of wild beasts’

A major event in twentieth century art was the 1905 Salon d’Autumne  with its scandalous ‘Fauve’ paintings.

The paintings were considered by most to be irredeemably ugly with their bold dashes of colour, which bore little resemblance to the actual colours of their subjects.

One painting in particular, Henri Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, caused the same level of controversy as Edouard Manet’s Olympia had years before.

However, painter Maurice Denis described the exhibition in the following way,

When one enters the gallery devoted to their work, at the sight of these landscapes, these figure studies, these simple designs, all of them violent in colour, one prepares to examine their intentions, to learn their theories; and one feels completely in the realm of abstraction. Of course, as in the most extreme departures of van Gogh, something still remains of the original feeling of nature.

But here one finds, above all in the work of Matisse paintings outside every contingency, painting in itself, the act of pure painting.

All the qualities of the picture other than the contrasts of line and colour, everything which the rational mind of the painter has not controlled, everything which comes from our instinct and from nature, finally all the factors of representation and of feeling are excluded from the work of art.

Here is, in fact, a search for the absolute. Yet, strange contradiction, this absolute is limited by the one thing in the world that is most relative: individual emotion.”

source: Russell T Clement, Les Fauves, A Sourcebook, 1994

However, the scandal caused by the works of the Fauves ( ‘wild beasts’ in French) at the 1905 Salon d’Automne turned into tremendous success,  which consolidated their identity as a group and encouraged them to continue exploring this new way of painting, to suit their individual personalities and styles. Fauvism continued as a recognised style until about 1908.

(The name Fauves was coined by the critic Louis Vauxcelles who, pointing to a quattrocento1-like sculpture in the middle of that same gallery exclaimed: ” Donatello au milieu des fauves!” (Donatello among the wild beasts), and the name fauves stuck.  source: John Rewald, Les Fauves, MoMA.

The group  included;

  • Henri Matisse 1869 – 1954
  • André Derain 1880 – 1954
  • Maurice de Vlaminck 1876 – 1958
  • Jean Puy 1876 – 1960
  • Albert Marquet 1875 – 1947
  • Raoul Dufy 1877 – 1953
  • Émilie Charmy 1878 – 1974
  • Kees van Dongen 1877-1968
  • Georges Roualt 1871 – 1958
  • Georges Braque 1882 – 1963 
  • Charles Camoin 1879 – 1965
  • Othon Friesz 1879 – 1949

The key features of their art during this period were:

  • Bright and bold colours;
  • Non-naturalistic colour used expressively;
  • Flattened planes and perspective;
  • Traditional subjects;
  • Simplified scenes;
  • Colour to express emotion; and
  • Omission of  detail.

Fauvism caused shockwaves because there was often no relationship between the colour used for a subject and its actual colour.  The Fauve painters also broke with older, traditional methods of perception, and details were omitted in favour of simplified scenes, featuring flat areas of pigment.

The Fauves were interested in the scientific colour theories that were being developed during the 1800s – particularly those relating to complementary colours. (Complementary colours are pairs of colours appear opposite each other on scientific models such as the colour wheel, and when used side-by-side in a painting make each other look brighter.)

The Fauves also generally returned to the more traditional subjects preferred by the Impressionists, such as landscapes, cityscapes, and scenes of middle class leisure. However, whilst this subject matter is still obvious in their art, you can see an early shift towards abstraction in some works.

Key Influences

Gustave Moreau, Orpheus, 1865
Gustave Moreau, Orpheus, 1865

The Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau was the movement’s first inspirational teacher; as a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris his students included Henri Matisse and George Roualt, Albert Marquet, Henri Manguin and Charles Camoin.

Moreau was a liberal teacher who didn’t interfere with the individuality of his students, encouraging them to look at nature and paint outdoors, and to visit museums, such as the Louvre, frequently.

Matisse said of him,

He did not set us on the right roads, but off the roads. He disturbed our complacency.” “With him one was able to discover the sort of work most suited to one’s temperament.”

With the death of Moreau, the group moved to a free academy, where they were joined by Jean Puy and André Derain.

In 1896, Matisse, still an unknown art student, visited the Australian Impressionist artist John Peter Russell on the island of Belle Île, off the coast of Brittany. The next year he returned as Russell’s student and abandoned his earth-coloured palette for bright Impressionist colours, later stating, “Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained colour theory to me“. Russell had also been a close friend of Vincent van Gogh and gave Matisse one of his 12 Van Gogh drawings,  something that he had never done before, and would never do again, which “suggests that he found in no one else the depth and strength of Matisse’s response”. Source: Hilary Spurling, The Unknown Matisse, Volume 1, pp352-553

John Peter Russell

Vincent van Gogh

Matisse was also attracted to Pointillist Paul Signac‘s and Georges Seurat‘s  ideas about colour and composition, and in 1904 the he spent time with him and Henri-Edmond Cross in St Tropez where Signac had a studio. Although he briefly experimented with a pointillist style, Matisse and other fauves  were more interested in the expressive potential of colour.

Henri-Edmond Cross, Paul Signac, Henri Matisse

Space was also a defining characteristic of Fauvism, influenced by Post-Impressionists such as Paul Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh. In 1899 Matisse purchased a Cezanne Bathers painting and between 1899 and 1901 his painting style evolved based on the lessons he learnt from both these artists.

Paul Cézanne

Matisse sought to incorporate Cézanne’s  “merit of wanting the tones to be forces in a painting” and instead of trying to show space as three-dimensional, Matisse focused on flattening out the space, working in planes rather than depth and using colour to define space.

Henri Matisse, Open Window, 1905
Henri Matisse, Open Window, 1905

Matisse, in particular, whose early development as an artist is almost synonymous with the development of the Fauvism movement, was largely preoccupied with colour as a means of personal expression – colour in its pure and unmixed state composed in the artist’s mind a form of pure expression. A sky could be orange, a tree crimson red, a face any combination of seemingly clashing colours. However, Matisse was most particular about the colours he used, and how they worked together – based on colour theory. Throughout his career he was highly regarded as a colourist.


Also influenced by van Gogh, whose work he’d seen in 1901, Fauve artist Maurice Vlaminck’s technique included the rough handling of paint, and squeezing paint directly onto the canvas from the tube – demonstrating his more impetuous approach to painting.

Maurice de Vlaminck, The River Seine at Chatou, 1906
Maurice de Vlaminck, The River Seine at Chatou, 1906

Paul Derain met with Maurice Vlaminck in 1901 and painted outdoors with him in the areas around Paris, where he introduced him to Matisse.


Andre Derain and Henri Matisse

Derain later joined Henri Matisse in Collioure in July 1905, and it was there Derain discovered the light of the Mediterranean, which greatly influenced his painting. This was significant learning period for them both – similar to the experience of Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir when the painted together at La Grenouillére in 1869.

During this time both artists overcame the rigid Pointillist style of Signac, which had marked their work throughout the previous year, in favour of greater pictorial freedom.


Matisse and Derain also studied the work of Paul Gauguin, and their works shared the latter’s emphasis on broad areas of colour.

The “primitive” art of Gauguin and his stress on pure and non-naturalistic colour provided impetuous for the Fauvists’ interest in non-Western art and the expressive potential of hues.

At the turn of the Century, the admiration for primitive traditions extended to their aesthetic creations, entirely apart from the context of the creation. Matisse, an inveterate museum browser, had probably encountered African sculptures at the Trocadéro museum with de Vlaminck, before visiting North Africa in 1906.

After returning that summer, Matisse painted two versions of The Young Sailor  in which he replaced the first version’s naturalistically contoured facial features with a more rigidly abstract visage reminiscent of a mask.

The sitter of this picture is an 18 year old fisherman, Germain Augustin Barthélémy Montargès, from the small Mediterranean village of Collioure near the Spanish border. Against the flat, bright pink background, Germain wears typical fisherman’s garb; a navy blue cap, a pullover over a white undershirt and blue-and-pink striped jersey, baggy green pants, green-and-white checked socks, and sturdy, laced-up shoes with rubber soles. His broad face is flat and mask-like, and the contours of his rounded limbs are crisp and defined, creating a sharp contrast to the loose brushstrokes that constitute them.

The Fauves included three artists from Le Havre: George Braque, Raoul Dufy and Othon Friesz.

George Braque, The Great Trees, L Estaque, 1906–07, Museum of Modern Art
George Braque, The Great Trees, L Estaque, 1906–07, Museum of Modern Art

After giving up work as a decorator to pursue painting full-time, Georges Braque  became briefly interested in Fauvism  – experimenting with loose brushwork, and vibrant, eye-catching colours and flattening out of planes. (Together with Pablo Picasso, he was instrumental in leading the cubist style, also strongly influenced by Cezanne, which followed shortly after Fauvism.)

Raoul Dufy, Bathers, 1908
Raoul Dufy, Bathers, 1908

Raoul Dufy was a furniture designer who also became a painter and print maker, and early in his career he was interested in Fauvism, being influenced by Matisse. Like Matisse, he painted a Cezanne inspired painting of bathers. His distinctive style remained light hearted throughout his career.

Othon Friesz, Autumn Work, 1907, State Heritage Museum
Othon Friesz, Autumn Work, 1907,

Together with Braque and Dufy, Othon Friesz studied in Le Havre. First influenced by the Impressionists, then by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin and Matisse’s high colour techniques,  his work as included at the Salon d’Automne in 1905.  His paintings  were composed of fluid strokes – using colour in the place of form and line – although his colours weren’t as violent or saturated as other fauves.

Emilie Charmy, Still Life, c1904
Emilie Charmy, Still Life, c1904

The most well known female fauvist was Émilie  de Charmy.  She commonly painted more daring subjects such as brothel interiors and prostitutes,  using intense colours, thickly applied paint, seemingly crude brushwork and a tendency towards abstraction. that would persist throughout her career. She began exhibiting with the Fauves at the Salon des Indépendants and Salon d’Autumne.

Marguerite Zorach, Man among the Redwoods, 1912
Marguerite Zorach, Man among the Redwoods, 1912

Another woman associated with Fauvism was American artist, Marguerite Zorach, who exhibited at the 1910 Société des Artistes Indépendants, and the 1911 Salon d’Automne, after meeting with Matisse and others. She had a highly successful career when she returned to the U.S.

Fauvism was short lived, and by the end of the decade, artists in the group had developed their individual styles. For most of the artists, Fauvism was a transitional, learning stage. More Matisse in particular, it was critical in his understanding in the use and power of colour.  Fauvism was significant in developing Modernism by bringing together influences of such artists as Cezanne, Russell, Signac, van Gogh and Gauguin.  The use of intense colour as a vehicle for denoting space, as well as for expression, was an important precursor to Cubism and a move towards abstraction.

1 Quattrocentois the Italian term that means “four hundred” for the years belonging to the fifteenth century. It was one of the most important periods of European art and culture.

This blog is an excerpt from my on-line e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art – you can find access to a free trial on the site. 

ecourse icon    Australian Art History


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