The present work, a tour-de-force of strident color and latent energy, exemplifies the intensity of Vlaminck's Fauve style. With its dynamic composition, industrial subject--an unusual departure for the artist beyond his native Île-de-France--and its dissonant palette of juxtaposed primaries of red and blue, the present work strongly recalls the London views of Vlaminck's close friend and colleague André Derain (fig. 1). In fact, Derain most probably completed his series of London pictures from sketchbooks during the course of the first half of 1907, at exactly the same time as Le Havre, les bassins was painted. The scale of the present work, moreover, executed on a "40F" (81 x 100 cm.) canvas, a large and seldom used format by Vlaminck at this time, also echoes Derain's almost exclusive use of the same format for his London subjects. It therefore seems a credible proposition that the present work was in some way Vlaminck's friendly riposte to Derain's London series.
Among the generation of Fauve artists, the famous chance encounter between Vlaminck and Derain on a suburban train journey in 1900 led to perhaps the most sustained artistic collaboration among members of the group. Vlaminck was a forceful and independent character, without significant formal schooling but intelligent and ambitious. His background was musical and he worked as a violinist in Montmartre nightclubs in order to support his young family and finance his fledgling artistic career. Vlaminck and Derain quickly became fast friends, exploring the banks of the Seine around their home of Chatou and their friendship endured through Derain's military service of 1901-1904 with a steady stream of correspondence. On Derain's return the self-appointed "School of Chatou" resumed their practice, their brushwork becoming increasingly bold and their palettes more willfully anti-naturalistic. Vlaminck publicly exhibited for the first time in 1904 when he showed a single work at Berthe Weill's gallery. Henceforth he abandoned his nightclub performances and threw himself into painting. "In order to find more time for painting I left Paris and my work with orchestras. I became a poor music teacher in a family. This was the hardest period of my life. I started all over again. For my own benefit and that of my pupils I taught the method of Mazas and Kreutzer, together with classical music, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart' (quoted in E. Lucie-Smith, Lives of the Great Twentieth-Century Artists, London, 1999, p. 20).
Through Derain, who had undertaken training in established studios and knew the Parisian milieu of avant-garde painters, Vlaminck came to know Matisse and his circle. In the process he overcame some of his natural antipathy to belonging to a group or movement, no matter how loose the association. He submitted several canvases to the 1905 Salon des Indépendants, where they appeared alongside recent paintings by Derain, Matisse, Manguin, Marquet and Camoin. Matisse had convinced both Vlaminck and Derain to exhibit at the Salon while visiting their studio in Chatou the previous winter. Commenting on his stay, the elder painter remarked, "I was not surprised by [their] painting, as it was close to the research that I myself was involved in. But I was moved to see that very young men had certain convictions that were similar to my own" (quoted in M. Vallès-Bled, op. cit., p. 86.). Matisse particularly noted the zones of expressive color that Vlaminck had liberated from descriptive function, a tactic fundamental to his own style. He states that "Vlaminck insisted on absolutely pure colors which obliged him to intensify the other parts of the painting accordingly" (quoted in J. Freeman, The Fauve Landscape, exh. cat., The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990, p. 66). Heeding Matisse's advice, both Vlaminck and Derain prepared for their debut at the Salon by making their own frames with wood donated by a local carpenter and transporting their paintings to Cours-la-Reine in a horse-drawn cart.
The paintings of Matisse and his colleagues at that time bolstered Vlaminck in his belief that he was on the right track, but the work of these other artists had been edging toward the radical style of Fauvism primarily through the theories and discipline of Signac and the Neo-Impressionists, which held little interest for Vlaminck. Since Vlaminck had not formally trained as a painter, he considered himself a true primitive whose most important sources of knowledge were painting directly from nature and observing the work of other artists. He had no respect for academic study, and chided Derain for enrolling in the Académie Julien and insisted that the value of their shared artistic research en plein air far surpassed anything the classroom could offer. He remarked to a friend, "Together for a year we had once again delved into all aspects of the problem of expression through color. Together, we had worked in the same direction, with the same goal I had neither the time nor the means to study at painting academies. But even if I had had those means, my way of seeing the world would not have been altered" (quoted in M. Vallès-Bled, op. cit., pp. 533-534).
The Salon d'Automne of 1905, at which Vlaminck and his colleagues again exhibited their ground-breaking pictures, saw the birth of the term "fauves" and marked a turning point in the adventure. The dealer Ambroise Vollard became the principal promoter of the group and soon began to sign up the participating artists to his gallery. In October 1905, at Matisse's suggestion, he bought the contents of Derain's studio, followed by his purchase of the entire contents of Vlaminck's studio in April 1906. Vollard, with his trademark commercial acuity, had meanwhile hatched a plan to emulate the success Paul Durand-Ruel had enjoyed with his exhibitions of Monet's views of London. To this end, he invited both Derain and Vlaminck to visit London to undertake a series of fifty paintings that would then be shown in Paris. Vlaminck, who disliked travel, turned down the offer, but Derain made three visits to the British capital over the years 1906 and 1907, eventually completing a series of thirty-seven works.
In March 1906, on Derain's second visit to London he wrote to Vlaminck: "My old mate Maurice. A man who is very busy putting some order into his ideas is writing to you about his painting in the belief that we are on the right track. What do you say? I am sure of it. I saw Turner. In Turner, there is a strong reasoning for Monet, which connects with something more besides, humanism. Painting is too beautiful a thing for us to reduce to visions comparable to those of a dog or a horse. It's imperative that we get out of the circle in which the realists have trapped us. I'm quite moved by my visits in London and to the National Museum [The National Gallery] as well as to the musée negre [the British Museum]. It's mind-boggling, alarmingly expressive. But there is something else in this excess of expression: these are forms born of the open air, from bright light, called to show themselves in bright light. It is that we need to be aware of, [when we consider] what we can learn from them. So it's understood that relationships between volumes can express light, or the meeting of light and this or that form. The Thames is huge and it's opposite of Marseilles; that's telling you everything. Best. Write to me with rumours and gossip" (quoted in André Derain: The London Paintings, exh. cat., Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London, 2005, p. 133).
In addition to his London project, Vollard worked assiduously on promoting "his" artists beyond Paris. One such initiative was his participation in the new organization of the Cercle de l'Art Moderne in Le Havre, which held its first exhibition in May-June 1906 under the direction of two native sons and Fauve fellow-travelers, Georges Braque and Othon Friesz. The city of Le Havre, at the mouth of the Seine estuary, had overtaken Honfleur as the most important port in Normandy over the course of the nineteenth-century, and was home for not only Braque and Friesz, but also for Monet who had also painted the harbor (fig. 2). It seems likely that Vlaminck traveled to Le Havre for the 1906 exhibition and the recent catalogue critique ascribes three paintings of the port to that journey (Vallès-Bled, nos. 158-160). It seems that the town itself held little attraction for the artist but febrile activity of the harbor entranced him: "the port, the wharves, the small sailors' bistros and the constant comings and goings together create an atmosphere that I really like" (quoted in Vallès-Bled, op. cit., p. 357). The present work apparently dates from the Spring of 1907, at the time of the second exhibition of Le Havre's Cercle de l'Art Moderne. It takes as its subject the Bassin du Commerce, one of the large port's docks (fig. 3).
(fig. 1) The present work
(fig. 2) André Derain, L'Etang de Londres, 1906-1907, Tate Gallery, London. BARCODE: 26532219
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Le Havre, 1873, National Gallery, London. BARCODE: 26532202
(fig. 4) Contemporary postcard of Le port du Havre, bassin du commerce. BARCODE: 26532196