J U N E  6,  2012
winter 1904 Matisse and Derain at Collioure. The Birth of Fauvism.

Le Pecq. Winter of 1904-1905

At the end of spring, when the exhibition season was over, Paris artists used to travel for work to the Mediterranean coast, as a rule, to Côte d’Azure. In the summer of 1905 Matisse did not join his friends Manguin, Marquet and Camoin at Saint Tropez, but together with his family went to the fishing port of Collioure at the very border with Spain not far from Perpignan, where his sister-in-law lived. The thirty-five-year-old father of three was at that time a commencing artist, full of doubts and still groping for his way.

Collioure suited the artist for summer work perfectly well: it was a quiet town where life was modest and inexpensive. Amélie’s sister helped the Matisses with the kids. The fifty francs Berthe Weill had sent from the sale of paintings guarantied decent existence for a while. In addition, friends helped – Manguin had sent one hundred francs and Camoin, too, sent all he could. Matisse was hardly better off than the local fishermen, who had a record low income of approximately a franc a day that summer.

For a studio the artist rented a room in a house at the farthest of the three town beaches. The entire port life was focused on the rocky coast, where the whole of Collioure came in the morning to meet fishing boats returning home with their catch. A noisy fish market with rows and bantering would then appear on the coast. It all happened right under the windows of Matisse’s room, and he drew fishing boats with hanging sails, nets spread around for drying and resting or working fisherman.

The first half of summer was rather quiet. The Matisses socialized with local artists and visited the studio of the sculptor Aristide Maillol, where they met the artist Daniel de Monfreid, a friend of Gauguin who showed Gauguin’s Tahitian sculptures to Matisse. Together with his friends, Matisse visited the local grape grower Gustave Fayet, in whose collection he saw Gauguin’s paintings.

In mid-summer 1905 Matisse felt symptoms of a forthcoming anxiety. For fear of being left face to face with his problems alone he wrote to his old friends Manguin, Marquet and Camoin, asking them to join him at Collioure. None of them responded. On June 25 Matisse sent a disturbing postcard to André Derain, who unlike the others responded immediately. Derain, who turned 25 in June, was largely indebted to Matisse. Matisse had brought his acquaintances to Derain’s studio and helped the young man throughout the three hard years of military service. Owing to him Derain first took part in the Salon des Independants in 1905 and sold nearly everything he had had in his studio to Vollard. Matisse went to Derain’s parents in Chatou to persuade them to allow their son to become an artist. To produce a favorable impression, Matisse took along his wife. He and Amélie dressed up to have a respectable bourgeois look. The visit paid by the Matisses produced such a strong impression on Derain, Sr. that he extended one thousand francs to André to go to Collioure.

Derain turned up on July 7 or 8, causing a veritable confusion at the Hotel de la Gare, where nobody knew how to treat that lanky dandy from Paris. “He looked like a giant, skinny, dressed in white, with a long thin moustache, catlike eyes and a red casquette on his head,” was how Mathieu Muxart, a hotel errands boy sent to the station to pick up Derain’s baggage, described him. “My cart was filled with his trunks, suitcases and a huge parasol to capacity.” Like anyone who finds oneself in Collioure for the first time, Derain was smitten by the abundance of light and colors. “Women with graceful movements, black caracos jackets and mantillas, red-green ceramics, donkeys, boats, white sails, multicolored boats,” he wrote to his friend Maurice Vlaminck. “And this light, pale golden and obliterating shadows. There will be a hell of work. I find everything I’ve done until now meaningless and silly.”

The hotel in which the artists lived was past the railroad, at the very start of a newly built avenue and rather far away from the noise and bustle of the port. Both worked zealously. Their easels often stood quite close to one another, and they painted a view of the rooftops or the Ouille rocks that both of them liked. Evenings they would paint each other, without paying any attention to the hotel bar customers, and then would carry their canvases and colors to the attic. A paradoxical sense of humor, energy and drive, and unexpected shifts from melancholy to sparkling joy made Derain irresistible. That summer he won over the whole of the Matisse family. In July Matisse and the family moved closer to the port, where they rented the upper floor of a spacious house right on the Bora Mare beach. Now Derain would come there, and the two of them worked together at the new studio of Matisse.

Many of the pictures done by them that summer showed a view of the sea or the harbor with an old bell-tower seen from the studio window. The heat was unbearable. His young friend’s fresh eye and his nose of a painter prompted Matisse to take resolute action. For several months he had been assailed by doubts of the rightness of the path suggested by Signac, who urged him to espouse divisionism. He had long meant to ditch the theoretical props of the “founding father”, and now there were little doubts left. But Derain, who was more impatient and less scrupulous about things than Matisse, was the first to take the “leap”. By late July he was jubilant in the belief that he had managed to eradicate every trace of divisionism in his painting. “The night is light and the day bright and overwhelming,” Derain wrote quite imaginatively on August 1. “The light is emitting its powerful cry of victory everywhere.” Encountering that light in their canvases, Derain and Matisse felt they were now victors, now the defeated. Matisse even asked Signac to send him Cezanne’s encouraging statement about the reconciliation of line and color. “Line and color do not oppose each other… When color attains maximum intensity, shape becomes most expressive.”

dancer Matisse and Derain at Collioure. The Birth of Fauvism.

The Dancer (Seated Woman), 1906-1907

Matisse went through a creative crisis throughout that summer, being pulled to all sides at once, as it were. He later said that there had been something terrible, even demonic about what happened to him and Derain that summer. He described that color released in them some magic energy. “At that time we looked like children that found themselves face to face with nature and gave full rein to our temperament… As a matter of principle I cast aside everything there had been earlier and worked exclusively with color, obeying the movement of feelings.” That, however, did not last long – Matisse got scared of the destructive frenzy of his own liberating instinct. Forty years later Derain would tell Georges Duthuit, Matisse’s son-in-law, that the wholesale demolition of all the taboos proved an ordeal for Matisse and himself: “We could no longer back out in order to take an outside look at what was going on and to bide our time. Colors have become for us dynamite charges. They were ready to explode with dazzling light.”

Matisse painted Derain’s portrait that summer at Collioure – a lean young face with black holes for eyes and a drooping moustache, framed by radiating brushstrokes of lemon yellow, turquoise, cherry red and light blue. For his part Derain painted Matisse at least three times. He presented the largest portrait, rather traditional in color scheme (with the exception of the green shadow looking like a bruise around one of the eyes), to Amélie. He showed Matisse wearing glasses in a golden frame and smoking a pipe as a wise and reliable elder friend capable of inspiring trust in people, such as his own parents. Yet, Derain was also familiar with another image of his friend – troubled and anxious. That is how he looks in a different portrait, with his hand, smeared with red paint, clasping brushes, his white face and a large red spot around his neck looking more like a blood-stained bandage than a beard. Matisse kept this portrait of a possessed, if not altogether demented artist till the end of his days. The stress experienced by Matisse in the summer of 1905 passed on to his near and dear, who likewise found themselves on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Matisse was never to get rid of agonizing insomnia that struck him at Collioure; the nights on which Amélie would read to him at times till dawn seemed endless.

portrait pair Matisse and Derain at Collioure. The Birth of Fauvism.

Left: Henri Matisse. Portrait of André Derain, 1905. Right: Portrait of Henri Matisse, 1905

After those two feverish months at Collioure Matisse was never to work together with Derain again. Young and daring, Derain was the first to respond to Matisse’s call and to come over; he braced Matisse up and simultaneously leaned on his elder comrade for courage that both of them needed so much when left alone face to face with the canvas. Both of them had to take one more final step from the old world to the new one.

It is rather hard to understand today how the new painterly treatment of light and color in the ordinary scenes of maritime daily life – fishing boats lurching behind the pots with scarlet geraniums on the windowsill or barefooted Amélie sitting on the rocks wrapped in a towel – might seem an encroachment on the foundations of civilization both to the “trouble-maker” himself and the public. However, Matisse indeed not merely discarded perspective, abolished shade and ignored the academic division of line and color. He challenged the method of vision that had been developed and embraced by the Western world over the centuries, ever since the times of Michelangelo and Leonardo, and even since the masters of ancient Greece and Rome. He replaced the illusion of objectivity of the past by conscious subjectivity, which was already twentieth-century art based on the visual and emotional reaction of the artist himself.

 

Sources:

Hilary Spurling, The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869 – 1908. University of California Press, 2001

 

Video of the February 2011 Christie’s auction, when bids for André Derain’s Boat, painted in Collioure in the summer of 1905, reached £5,865,250.