Bateaux à Collioure is one of the pictures that André Derain painted during his historic stay in the French coastal town of the same name, where he had gone to join his fellow artist and friend, the older Henri Matisse. There, the two worked alongside each other, blazing the trail of the movement that would, in the Salon d'Automne that was held sometime after their return to Paris later that year, be dubbed the 'Fauves.' The wildness that lent the loosely-joined movement its name is clear in the bold, brightly blazing colours of Bateaux à Collioure, with the broad areas of red and yellow making up the foreground, the lapis flecks that convey some of the shimmering water and the boats, and the green of the sky. This painting perfectly embodies Derain's statement that, 'Fauvism was for us a trial by fire... The colours became sticks of dynamite. They had to explode into light' (Derain, quoted in N. Kalitina, André Derain, Leningrad, 1976, p. 9).
For Derain, Fauvism had begun several years before he had come to know Matisse, who was already an established figure in the avant-garde by that time. Instead, it was when he met Maurice de Vlaminck, another young artist who was based in Chatou, the suburb of Paris that the two artists would come to celebrate in their vibrant landscapes from the banks of the River Seine. They apparently met when their train had derailed and they were forced to walk back to Chatou; the pair recognised each other from their painting forays, but only when thrown together by that minor calamity did they strike up a conversation and discover their mutual interest in pushing back the boundaries of painting. The pair began to work side by side, comparing their pictures and sharing a studio. This reached an intense peak following Derain's return from military service when, in the winter of 1904 to 1905, they created shimmering, intense, colour-drenched landscapes of Chatou.
It was around this time that Matisse, an older and more established artist who had been pursuing a similar direction separately in his own paintings such as Luxe, calme et volupté of 1904, bringing intense colour to the fore, came into close contact with Derain and Vlaminck. However, his continued interest in the Pointillisme still espoused by his friend, the Neo-Impressionist pioneer Paul Signac - who himself had visited Collioure almost two decades earlier, celebrating its light in a group of oils - marked out a difference between his own ideas and those of Vlaminck and Derain, a difference that under the influence of these younger firebrands would later come to dissolve. Matisse played an important role in encouraging Derain, who was particularly despondent after returning from his military service. It was Matisse who had picked him up, helping to send him in the direction of the joyous colours that sing out from his Fauve works such as Bateaux à Collioure.
Matisse discussed his friendship with Derain, explaining:
'I knew Derain from having met him in the studio of Eugène Carrière where he worked, and I took an interest in the serious, scrupulous work of this highly gifted artist... Derain asked me to go to see his parents to persuade them that painting was a respectable trade, contrary to what they thought. And to give more weight to my visit, I took my wife with me. To tell the truth, the painting of Derain and Vlaminck did not surprise me, for it was close to the researches I myself was pursuing. But I was moved to see that these very young men had certain convictions similar to my own' (Matisse, quoted in J. Elderfield, The 'Wild Beasts': Fauvism and Its Affinities, Oxford, New York & Toronto, 1976, p. 30).
Matisse's mention of his intervention with Derain's parents appears to have been a vital hurdle for the young artist. As the son of a prosperous middle-class shop-owner, Derain was expected to pursue a more respectable path than that of artist. However, towards the end of 1904 or the beginning of 1905 Matisse, who himself appeared so respectable and was already relatively well-known, managed to convince Derain's father that being a painter was an honourable profession in its own right. Derain's father may have been further convinced when, in February 1905, the contents of his son's studio were bought in their entirety (with the exception of one copy after Ghirlandaio which Derain insisted on keeping) by the legendary dealer Ambroise Vollard, who had been introduced to the young Fauves by Matisse. Vollard later came to be the owner of Bateaux à Collioure.
The influence of Matisse on Derain's father would come to the fore again regarding the journey to Collioure. Derain had asked Matisse to write a postcard or short letter to him, recommending that he join him in Collioure so that he could convince his parents. Matisse replied on 25 June 1905:
'I cannot insist too much in order to persuade you that a stay here is absolutely necessary for your work - you would be in the most advantageous condition and you would retrieve pecuniary benefits from the work that you do here. I am certain that if you listen to me you will find that this is why I repeat, come' (Matisse, quoted in exh. cat. André Derain: Le peintre du "trouble moderne", Paris, 1994, p. 112).
Whether it was his air of authority, the fact that he was a 'guardian figure' or the stated financial benefits that convinced his father, Derain found himself in a position to write back on 28 June that he was on his way, having encountered less resistance than he had expected from his family and even furnished with an admittedly small budget from them. The prospect of the trip, which he had earlier discussed, filled him with excitement as in many ways his ideas concerning art were divergent from those of his friend Vlaminck. While they were of a similar age, Derain's sensibility towards painting was arguably far more in tune with that of Matisse, the great colourist of the Twentieth Century.
Matisse had been in Collioure since 16 May; Derain appears to have arrived some days after his letter. There, he appears to have stayed in the Hôtel de la Gare where Matisse had himself taken rooms with his family. Matisse had also rented a room overlooking the Faubourg beach there, by the Port d'Avall, to use as a studio. On 15 July, within a short time of Derain's arrival, Mme Matisse was able to write to Jeanne Manguin, who was staying with her husband, the fellow artist Henri Manguin, in Malleribes near Saint-Tropez: 'My husband and Derain work steadily, despite the strong heat' (Mme Matisse, quoted in J. Freeman (ed.), exh. cat., The Fauve Landscape, Los Angeles, New York and London, 1990, p. 75). Derain wrote back often to his friend Vlaminck, likewise discussing the advances that he was making, side by side with Matisse, often encouraged by the older painter's work, sometimes disappointed by his continued adherence to Pointillism, rather than the broader, more intense brushstrokes that can be seen in Bateaux à Collioure and which convey such a sense of passion, relying on emotion and expression rather than the science of colours and contrasts. This divergence, as well as the impact that the intense light of the South had on Derain, can be seen in particular in his letter of 28 July to Vlaminck, in which he elucidated,
'1. A new conception of light consisting in this: the negation of shadows. Light here is very strong, shadows very faint. Every shadow is a whole world of clarity and luminosity which contrasts with sunlight: what is known as reflections.
Both of us, so far, have overlooked this, and in the future, where composition is concerned, it will make for a renewal of expression.
2. Noted, when working with Matisse, that I must eradicate everything involved by the division of tones. He goes on, but I've had my fill of it completely and hardly ever use it now. It's logical enough in a luminous, harmonious picture. But it only injures things which owe their expression to deliberate disharmonies' (Derain, letter to Vlaminck, 28 July 1905, quoted in D. Sutton, André Derain, London, 1959, p. 16).
It is in those disharmonies, those scintillating contrasts, that Bateaux à Collioure and its fellows thrive, thrusting the colour to the fore with a calculated abandon. Matisse's pictures often abandoned the Divisionism that Derain bemoaned, resulting in the fact that the proximity of their working arrangement can be traced in their paintings as well as in letters. This appears evident from comparison of Bateaux à Collioure with the palette of, for example, Matisse's Les toits de Collioure (Matinée d'été), now in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Both pictures share a similar red for the foreground, a similar mixture of lapis and turquoise blues for the water and a use of pink for the hills of the landscape in the background. A similar use of colours is again visible in the small portrait that Derain painted showing Matisse at a table with the beach and the sea behind him; that picture, which is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was one of three oil portraits that Derain made of Matisse, while the older artist reciprocated with a dashing image of the young painter which is now in the collection of the Tate Gallery, London.
Over the months that the two artists spent in Collioure before they left in September, they created a number of ravishing images of the port and its surrounding area, saturated with vivid colours. Albert Marquet, a fellow Fauve, saw their pictures and wrote to Manguin that, 'they have made stunning things' (Manguin, quoted in Freeman (ed.), op. cit., 1990, p. 79). It comes as no surprise that of the nine works that Derain showed at the famous Salon d'Automne held in Paris later that year, five showed scenes of Collioure (including two of the four pastels he showed); the oils shown included Le séchage des voiles à Collioure (Pushkin Museum, Moscow). Likewise, Matisse showed Les toits de Collioure among his other paintings. These were hung in the same room as landscapes by Vlaminck and various other Fauve artists who had been working in the South of France and Le Havre; and it was in this legendary setting that Louis Vauxcelles, spotting a sculpture by Albert Marque in the centre of Room VII, declared it to be, 'Donatello chez les fauves,' coining a name that would stick and indeed come to be embraced by the artists concerned (L. Vauxcelles, Gil Blas, 17 October 1905, reproduced in R. Labrusse & J. Munck (eds.), Matisse-Derain: La verityé du Fauvisme, Paris, 2005, p. 242).