When Rouault as a young man showed Degas his paintings and apologized for the influences only too obviously reflected in them, Degas replied: "Everyone must have a mother and father." Without going back to the Middle Ages, it is possible to see inklings of Fauvism in certain aspects of the work of Delacroix, in Daumier's generous use of paint, and in the later landscapes of Courbet, in which the lyrical feeling imposes an increasingly vigorous colour and handling. But the two main sources of Fauvism are Gauguin and Van Gogh.
It should be made clear that Fauvism is merely a term of convenience. It was never an organic movement like Impressionism, Cubism or Surrealism. The Fauves were a mixed group with no recognized leader, no exponent of theory, and their ideas were often at variance. Matisse and Vlaminck, for example, differed on practically everything. The few principles that were evolved came later. Fauvism was essentially the untrammelled expression of the artist's personality.
It is easier to describe the Fauves in terms of what they disliked rather than what they liked. The dozen or so young painters grouped under the Fauve banner were reacting against the atmospheric naturalism of the Impressionists, the slightly decadent charm of the Nabis, and of course against any form of academic art. Their paintings were the reflection of their artistic personalities and consequently in no way bound to any form of objective represeritation.
"Nature is only a hypothesis," as Dufy remarked to a collector, puzzled by one of his landscapes. Maurice Denis, one of the first Nabis to take an interest in the Fauves, defined Fauvism in these terms: "It is painting divorced from contingencies, painting for its own sake, the pure act of painting. All qualities of description or personal reflection have been excluded from the work of art. These painters are searching for the absolute."
Long after the Fauve bombshell had burst, Othon Friesz, explained what his friends were trying to achieve: "To render the sunlight effect through a technique of colour orchestrations and transpositions of their own to which their emotion toward nature inspired them and which intense and enthusiastic research proved to be correct." Matisse, speaking to the publisher Tériade in 1929, added a few details: "These were the ideas we had then: construction by means of coloured surfaces. A desire for a greater intensity of colour, the actual quality of the paint being of minor interest. Reaction against the representation of light by a diffusion of local colours. Light was not suppressed, rather it was expressed by a conjunction of intensely coloured surfaces. In my picture La Musique, I chose the bluest of blues for the sky. The surface was coloured to saturation point, that is, to the point at which it communicated the idea of absolute blue. It was the same for the green of the trees and the vibrant vermilion of the human bodies. With these three colours I established a harmony of light as well as purity of tone. One more point: colour was proportioned to form. Form was modified by the interplay of neighbouring coloured areas. The impact comes from the coloured surface, which the spectator grasps in its entirety."
The Fauves wanted to convey emotional shocks with the aid of forms reduced to their essentials and with pure colour. But colour was the first item on their programme of reform. Disregarding realism, they used colour simply with an eye to the picture surface, with only the effect in mind. The stronger the colour, the greater its effect, which led them logically to the ultimate step of using colour straight from the tube. Some sought to increase the vibration of their colours by adopting the divisionist technique of the Neo-Impressionists, but this rudimentary pointillism did not imply acceptance of NeoImpressionist theories of atmospheric realism. As Matisse and Derain learned more about Gauguin, this trend was abandoned.
The need to express themselves in colour led the Fauves to reject most of the principles of traditional painting to which both Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists had adhered: linear and atmospheric perspective, chiaroscuro, modelling, and attention to detail. Economy of means was stressed in order to increase the expressive force of the painting. Hard-hitting was the order of the day.
Despite their lack of cohesion, the Fauves shared certain characteristics. The most violent and resolute members of the group (and the ones who gave it its character and sense of purpose) were from the north, which might explain their love of red and other bright colours. Matisse came from CateauCambrésis and Vlaminck, although born in Paris, was of Flemish origin. The southerners were all minor figures. Most of them were sturdy and well-built, with fair complexions, red beards and blue eyes. They had little interest in poetry, the theatre or literature, and had few contacts in intellectual circles. Their emotive temperaments were better attuned to music. Braque played both the accordeon and the guitar. Vlaminck earned his living as a music teacher until he was thirty, and both Matisse and Dufy played the violin. Derain played the organ and the harpsichord.
Several of the Fauves, as we have seen, were either anarchists or anarchist sympathisers. With the exception of Matisse, they tended to adopt eccentric form of dress as a means of stressing their opposition to bourgeois standards. Vlaminck sported a painted wooden tie and a red scarf to go with his bowler hat. Van Dongen and Braque wore blue overalls, and Manguin baggy Zouave trousers. They were more often to be seen in the bistros of the Halles or Montmartre than in the literary Cafés of Saint-Germain. It is doubtful whether they ever met, as did the Nabis, around a tea-table.
Despite their differences, they all passed through similar or parallel stages of evolution: discovery of Impressionism, understanding of its weaknesses, and finally admiration for Gauguin and Van Gogh. Their reaction, however authentic, was not the first of its kind. Gauguin had led the revolt against the Impressionists, although he owed his formation as an artist to them. He was one of the first to perceive the inadequacy of their art. "They study what the eye sees," he said, "but they do not penetrate to the mysterious centre of thought itself." Here he states the question of the spiritual importance of a work of art. Gauguin considered that painting should be symbolic, poetical and plastic, and his mature works were diametrically opposed to those of the Impressionists. He restored the autonomy of the picture, or, as Jean Cassou says, "He led painting back to its primitive and essential function, which is to draw plastic signs on a two-dimensional surface." This idea was of enormous consequence in the development of modern art in general and of Fauvism in particular.
To satisfy his mysticism and his sense of poetry, Gauguin turned to primitive art, not so much from deliberate choice as from an instinctive, almost unconscious, desire to return to the origins of his personality. His early childhood in his great-uncle's mansion in Peru, his journeys as a navigator and then an ordinary seaman in the navy, had given him a Baudelairean vision of a world composed of strange forms and colours. To the end of his life and throughout his various peregrinations, he clung to certain pre-Columbian vases collected by his mother; they figure in many of his paintings. "Primitivism is a source of strength for me," he said -- a statement which conditioned Nabis, Fauves and Cubists to an interest in exotic and primitive art. He went to Brittany not solely in order to live cheaply, but to find a more primitive existence. Gauguin, whose technique had been formed through contacts with Monet and Pissarro between 1883 and 1887, began to define his ideas and to communicate (i. e. impose) them on the younger painters in his entourage during his second stay at the Pension Gloanec in Pont-Aven in the summer of 1888. Although many years of adventure were already behind him, he had still to find his own artistic personality, paint his most significant works, and live out the painful conclusion of his extraordinary destiny. He had just returned from Martinique, matured by the failure of the expedition, and was beginning to see how he could give concrete shape to his ideas. The canvases he had brought back showed that he had already abandoned the bright dabs of the Impressionists in favour of rather timid flat coloured areas. He was groping for a simpler, more summary form of art, and his conception suddenly crystallized when he met Emile Bernard, who was also staying at the Pension Gloanec. Gauguin was then forty years old and Bernard just twenty, an ethereal youth with a tendency to mysticism, a vivid imagination and a remarkable gift for exposition. The two had met before, in 1886, in the dining-room of the Pension, but Gauguin had taken little notice of the young art student, a fugitive from the Atelier Cormon.
In his memoirs, Emile Bernard tells of this first, disappointing, meeting. "I had a room in the town where I slept, read and worked, and I went to the Pension only at mealtimes. Gauguin sat opposite me, with a painter friend, Charles Laval, beside him. One day he took me to his studio and showed me canvases that reminded me very strongly of Pissarro and Puvis de Chavannes. I was not very enthusiastic, and he consequently lost interest in me."
Two years later everything was different. Bernard had already painted several pictures in a new technique on which he had been meditating for some time. Simplified shapes were outlined in black, and these outlines defined the coloured areas which were broadly and flatly painted. Some of these works had been hung in the dining-room of the Pension and Gauguin was immediately impressed. Here was something that connected with his own experiments. He therefore greeted Bernard with more warmth and went to his room to see the pictures he had brought back from Saint-Briac. "He thought they had great character," writes Bernard, "and he liked the bright colours and the simplicity of technique. Then he took me to his studio in Mme Gloanec's attic. I found that his style had become more personal and distinct. He still divided his tones, and this destroyed the general colour effect and gave the pictures a slightly muddy appearance. I told him this, as politely as I could, but also assured him of my regard for his talent. Some time later there was a saint's day in Pont-Aven and... I painted some Breton women in black dresses seated in a meadow which I deliberately made a greenish yellow. Gauguin was very impressed by this picture which demonstrated my ideas on colour and summed up the results of my experiments with colour effects. 'The more you divide the tone, the more you weaken it,' I told him,' and that makes it look grey and dull.' He wanted to work this out for himself, so he borrowed some of the colours I had used, such as Prussian blue, which the Impressionists had banished from their palettes and which he did not have with him. He then painted The Vision after the Sermon, which earned him the title of 'the creator of symbolism.' "