Colorful Fauvism painting of a woman sitting on a rock by the ocean

Fauvism: A Short Movement with a Big Impact

Looking at how brief it was, the Fauvism movement in art does not seem like it would be of much importance. After all, what could an artistic movement that lasted less than a decade accomplish or influence? These ideas could not be further from the truth, however. Beginning at the start of the 20th century, Fauvism acted as among the first avant-garde and modern art movements. Behind the simple, saturated compositions lies artistic techniques and ideas that will have an influence on art for decades to come.

The bright colors and simple forms of Fauvism traded in intellectual and representational work for a subjective artistic experience. Artists drew on their own emotions and response to determine how the painting looked, rather than just copying what lay before them. This emotional form of painting was what made up Fauvist’s works and made them stand out.

As mentioned, Fauvism was an extremely brief part of art history. So brief that an outline of their common ideals and goals, as outlined by Henri Matisse, was not made until after it was over. Despite how fleeting their movement was, though, there is still quite a bit to talk about.

Within the movement is a short yet exciting story. The Fauves took inspiration from legendary artists, and turned it into something bold, new, and exciting. This is the story of Fauvism, and its techniques, style, and influence within the art world.

Photo of Fauvist Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse, Paris, May 13th, 1913, photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn, PD Art, PD US, found on Wikimedia Commons 

Beginnings of Fauvism and Its Founding Artists

First, we must start with Henri Matisse and Andre Derain, the most well-known and imitated of all the Fauves. It was these two men who started the movement and gave it its most identifiable features, Matisse especially. It was Henri Matisse who introduced the striking use of color, inspired somewhat by Pointillism. As early as the 1890s, he was already experimenting with strong light in his paintings. He was also the one who brought forth the ideas of his former teacher, Gustave Moreau. This was the man who taught Matisse, and some others of the movement, to prioritize personal expression in art.

Henri Matisse and Andre Derain had met as early as 1899. In 1905, they went on a four-month trip where they honed their skills. Derain, a few years later, had become associated with Maurice de Vlaminck. The two shared a Paris studio and worked together defining their use of color and linework. Both were quite bold in their application. These three men would make up the beginning of the small Fauvist circle. (artincontext.org, 2022)

The “Wild Beasts”

In 1905, the three would all submit their work to the Salon d’Automne.  Simultaneously, other pupils of Matisse’s mentor Moreau were also showing off their work at this same exhibition. It was this exhibit that would give the Fauvists their iconic name.

At the exhibit, one of the artists present, Albert Marquet, showed off a sculpture that was more traditional than what else was present. Critic Louis Vauxcelles wrote about this contrast in his highly negative review of their show. He stated it was like “Donatello among the wild beasts”. Donatello being the classical Marquet sculpture, and the wild beasts being the more obvious Fauvist-style works. Wild beasts translates to “fauves”in French. Despite its mocking connotation, the group of artists decided to take the moniker as their own. These “Wild Beasts” continued to have their art in many high-profile exhibitions, like the Salon des Independents. The Fauves even had their own room, which shows the extent of their popularity. (artincontext.org, 2022)

Now that we have an impression of how the group came together, we can look at what influenced their body of work.

Gustave Moreau painting, featuring mythological characters
Jupiter and Semele, Gustave Moreau, 1894-95, PD-old-100, PD US, found on Wikimedia Commons

Inspiration of Specific Artists 

One of the biggest influences on Fauvism was the work of artist Paul Cezanne. Paul Cezanne had a very unique approach to the way he did his paintings. The color and form were their own separate elements. He did not try to hide them, make them look completely accurate to what his source was. Realism and representationalism were not his goals. He would look at his subjects from every angle. This led to a sort of “fractured” appearance. This different take on painting was expanded on by the Fauves. It helps that, around this time, the recently late artist’s works were drawing lots of popularity. (artincontext.org, 2022)

Other famous artists like Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh also had a large influence on the movement. They used expressive and varied linework, with unique paint application and strong use of color.

They used these artists’ approach to color and line to create works that, similarly, drew attention to both. Like the works of these men, the paintings were not representative of what lay in real life. Instead, colors and lines were drawn attention to.

Gustave Moreau was undoubtedly the most influential artist of all, however. Many of the founding Fauvists had been his pupils and had taken his ideals of art very seriously. It was his belief that personal expression of the artist should be emphasized in art.  His students found great inspiration in this. His Symbolist principles, as outlined in the section below, left a huge mark on the movement. (The Art Story Foundation)

Other Inspirations for the Movement

Fauvism also took heavy inspiration from both the Symbolists and the Pointillists. The Symbolists hid deeper meanings within their works behind, well, symbols. They were a group that would put religious, intellectual, and emotional meanings behind images. The Fauves were a group that used their real-life subjects to represent anything but themselves. The basic composition was supplemented with different colors and lines and textures that represented the hidden emotions of the artist. (The Art Story Foundation)

Pointillism’s main influence on the Fauvism movement was its use of color. Pointillists actually used color in a completely different way than the Fauvists did. Pointillists used small dots of color to create an optical trick that, when viewed from afar, would blend together into single colors. Meanwhile, Fauvists used large, flat areas of color. What the Fauves took from the Pointillists was the way in which people viewed the colors. They were intrigued about how the viewer would interpret the dots of color next to each other to see some greater picture. In Fauvist pieces, this is translated to different bright colors used side-by-side to create different emotional interpretations for viewers.

This was also the first time that African art was considered actual art, rather than as an artifact, an oddity. African sculpture art was an especially huge influence on how Fauvists created their works. Matisse especially used their striking angular look as inspiration. This, alongside Asian and Islamic art, had an impact on how he created his paintings. Japanese art, due to its flatness, worked especially well with his signature Fauvist style. (artincontext.org, 2022)

Fauvism painting, colorful village against tan dirt and blue sky and river
Collioure en août, Henri Matisse, 1911, PD-Art (PD-old-70), PD US, found on Wikimedia Commons

Common Techniques and Styles Associated with Fauvism

Fauvism’s most recognizable trait is the vivid and saturated colors. They were often used straight from the tube and applied flat in large areas to the canvas. This was the first time colors had been given a purpose other than being strictly representational. Instead of just copying what lied before them, the Fauves picked colors that represented their emotional response to what was being painted. (Rewald, 2004) This led to oceans being painted red, trees being painted blue, and all kinds of different combinations of bright colors spread across the canvas. Color was treated as an independent element, something to be called attention to on its own.

The paintings also looked very flat and two-dimensional. Instead of trying to create something with a traditional perspective, the Fauves wanted to draw attention to the flatness of their pieces. Despite their simple nature, however, Fauvist works featured strong and unified compositions.

One of the biggest changes from the movement that preceded it was the subject matter and how it was presented. Impressionists often used urban settings as inspiration. Fauvists, meanwhile, went back to more natural ones, like coastal towns and hills. The largest difference between the movements, though, was how the viewer was supposed to look at these works. Rather than any intellectual or representational meaning, the emotional and subjective experience of each artist was deemed most important. When looking at a Fauvist piece, you get a look into the state of mind each artist had regarding their subject matter while painting. It makes the works truly unique, especially in a time when this kind of subjectivity was rarer in art than it is now. (Rewald, 2004)

Reception to the Movement

Fauvism had a somewhat better reception than Impressionism. While they were hounded by critics, the public loved the paintings. As opposed to the Impressionists who initially made little money, Fauvist paintings sold very well.

They also continued to have many shows throughout the short time they came together as a unified group. Granted, there was never an official outline of their ideals and techniques while they were creating and showing works with one another. However, despite its short lifespan, the group continued to add members. Clearly, this movement was, at least to some extent, bursting with energy from both the artists and the populace.

Cubist-style portrait of Pablo Picasso
Portrait of Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, 1912, PD-old-80-expired, PD-Art (PD-old-auto-expired), PD US, found on Wikimedia Commons

The Influence of Fauvism on Other Art Movements

Fauvism, due to its short existence, acted more like a transitional period for many of the artists involved. Only a few kept to the same style, while most moved on to something new. Only Henri Matisse would truly stick to his Fauvist roots and sensibilities out of everyone in the group. Everyone else moved on to something different, taking certain elements of Fauvism and reworking them into something else.

One of the biggest things that people got involved with was Cubism, which took lots of inspiration from the Fauvist movement. It actually grew directly from Fauvism, with many artists of this movement going to this one. The simplified and broken-down forms of Fauvism, combined with the use of color, were what influenced Cubist works and artists. (artincontext.org, 2022)

Expressionism also took many things from the Fauves. As can be guessed by the name, the Expressionists were a group of artists dedicated to representing inner emotions and turmoil. They similarly played around with form and color of things in order to represent these themes. They also used rather intense and expressive brushwork and colors. (The Art Story Foundation)

The End of the Movement

As mentioned, Henri Matisse was the one artist to permanently stick with the traditional Fauvist style and techniques. For everyone else, they took what skills they honed and utilized them for something entirely new.

Funnily enough, Paul Cezanne may have actually helped the demise of Fauvism, as well as having inspired it. Paul Cezanne’s posthumous show in 1907 really helped to put his work back into the public eye. It led to people reevaluating it and taking inspiration from it in different ways than the Fauvists did. For these new young artists, their main takeaway was his complicated, two-dimensional forms. They took this aspect and ran away with it. Instead of just meticulously painting things from multiple perspectives, they began to fracture and distort their forms. (artincontext.org, 2022)

This is where a lot of the artists from the Fauvist movement ended up. Even one of the founding Fauvists, Andre Derain, had moved from Fauvism to Cubism. He even became an influential Cubist in his own right, even working with Pablo Picasso.

Conclusion: The Legacy of Fauvism

Fauvism was no doubt very short-lived. It came and went within less than a decade, and only one artist decided to stay loyal to its tenets. Even many of the founding members moved on within a short period of time to something else. It can be hard to believe that something so brief could have a major impact. And yet, defying all odds, Fauvism did just that.

They were among some of the first artists to push color as its own subject on the page. Fauves called attention to it, made it bright and bold and did not try to make it realistic. The group was the first group to seriously consider African art as art and use it as inspiration in their work. They put the artist’s emotions at the forefront.

All of this has tremendously influenced our art world today. The Fauves encouraged people to make art in a way that spoke to them. Taking the outlook of Paul Cezanne to the extreme, they wanted people to do more than just copy what was in front of them. All of these elements morphed not only into the immediate art movements but have persisted into the 21st century. Imagine art that only uses “real” colors. Or maybe art that can only be a realistic imitation of what lies before you. It would certainly make the art world a lot more boring. Thanks to Fauvism, people now have their own ways of representing the world and its inhabitants.

References:

“Fauvism – the Origins, Artworks, and Artists of the Fauve Movement.” Artincontext.org, Artincontext.org, 8 Apr. 2022, https://artincontext.org/fauvism/.

“Fauvism Movement Overview.” The Art Story, The Art Story Foundation, https://www.theartstory.org/movement/fauvism/.

Rewald, Sabine. “Fauvism.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/fauv/hd_fauv.htm (October 2004)

“Symbolism Movement Overview.” The Art Story, The Art Story Foundation, https://www.theartstory.org/movement/symbolism/.

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