The present painting ranks among the very greatest of Maurice de Vlaminck's fauve landscapes painted during 1905, the most celebrated and innovative years of his career. Fauvism was the first real revolution in the development of twentieth-century art, and Vlaminck, whom the poet Guillaume Apollinaire admiringly called "the wildest of the Fauves," was one of its leaders, along with Henri Matisse and André Derain. Vlaminck and Derain met in 1900 when their commuter train from Paris derailed en route to Chatou, a suburban town about nine miles northwest of the capital where they both lived. The two painters decided to share a studio at Chatou, and in 1901 Derain introduced Vlaminck to Matisse at an exhibition of Van Gogh's work at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. Matisse recalled this meeting: "One day I went to the Van Gogh exhibition at Bernheim's in the rue Lafitte. I saw Derain in the company of an enormous young fellow who proclaimed his enthusiasm in a voice of authority. He said, 'You see, you've got to paint with pure cobalts, pure vermilions, pure veronese.' I think Derain was a bit afraid of him. But he admired him for his enthusiasm and his passion. He came up to me and introduced Vlaminck" (quoted in J. Elderfield, The "Wild Beasts": Fauvism and Its Affinities, New York, 1976, p. 30). Vlaminck's first exhibited works were in a group show at Berthe Weill's gallery in Paris in 1904, followed by four paintings at the Salon des Indépendants and eight at the Salon d'Automne in 1905. It was during the last exhibition that the critic Louis Vauxcelles-- shocked by this new work, with its impetuous application of pure, unmodulated color--bestowed on Vlaminck and his fellow painters the derisive sobriquet of Les Fauves ("The Wild Beasts").
During this period, Vlaminck worked almost exclusively in the western suburbs of Paris, particularly in and around Chatou, where the present canvas was painted. A lifelong resident of this region, which the Impressionists had immortalized during the 1870s and 1880s, Vlaminck drew his most profound artistic inspiration from the familiar local landscape. He recalled in old age, "I had no wish for a change of scene. All these places that I knew so well, the Seine with its strings of barges, the tugs with their plumes of smoke, the taverns in the suburbs, the color of the atmosphere, the sky with its great clouds and its patches of sun, these were what I wanted to paint" (quoted in The Fauve Landscape, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990, p. 148). In 1906, when the dealer Ambroise Vollard purchased the entire stock of Vlaminck's studio, permitting the artist to devote himself exclusively to painting for the first time in his life, he still did not leave the Paris suburbs. Whereas financial security enabled his companion Derain to rent a studio in Paris and Matisse to head to the Midi, Vlaminck had no wish to seek out new motifs. He later explained, "You cannot come into profound contact with things by looking at a landscape through the door of an automobile like a tourist, or by spending your vacations in a corner of the countryside. You don't flirt with nature, you possess it" (quoted in J. Herbert, Fauve Painting: The Making of Cultural Politics, New Haven, 1992, p. 53).
Chatou is located on the right bank of the Seine at the beginning of the third bend in the river as it flows out of Paris. It was connected to the capital by the very first railway line in the nation, which opened between Paris and Le Pecq in 1837. By the Impressionists' day, the town had become a popular summer retreat and playground for visitors from the capital, and the haute bourgeoisie enjoyed sailing and canoeing along the wooded banks of the Ile de Chatou, a long, slender island in the center of the Seine. It was here that Renoir painted such canvases as Les canotiers à Chatou of 1879 (Daulte, no. 307; Dauberville, no. 217; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and Le déjeuner des canotiers of 1880 (Daulte, no. 379; Dauberville, no. 224; fig. 1). Vlaminck was well aware of the artistic legacy of Chatou; Le déjeuner des canotiers, for instance, had been hung prominently at the Salon d'Automne in 1904 and served as a touchstone in many contemporary writings on Renoir. Yet while the Impressionists had celebrated the town as a convivial world of social pleasures, Vlaminck's paintings are largely unpeopled, conveying both a hint of melancholy and a strong sense of harmony with the landscape. John Klein has written, "Because Derain and Vlaminck were longtime residents of the region, the motifs that they painted in Chatou and the surrounding area were deeply familiar to them. The sense of being of the place gives their paintings a profoundly different character, at once more intimate and more poignant, than the canvases of Bougival, Chatou, or La Grenouillère by Renoir and Monet, who had been tourists like all the others" (exh. cat., op. cit., Los Angeles, 1990, p. 131).
Although Vlaminck was working within an established modern practice by painting in the Paris suburbs, his incendiary palette and bold, choppy brushwork represents an abrupt break with convention, and especially with the delicate treatment favored by Renoir and his Impressionist colleagues. In contrast, the Post-Impressionists represent an important precedent for the Fauves' formal innovations. While Derain and Matisse turned principally to Gauguin for inspiration, Vlaminck was more profoundly affected by the heavy impasto and unnaturally saturated colors of Van Gogh (e.g. fig. 2, a painting by Van Gogh from Auvers-sur-Oise that has a similar composition to the present canvas). Vlaminck later described the epiphany he experienced upon visiting the Van Gogh exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1901: "In him I found some of my own aspirations. Probably from similar Nordic affinities? And, as well as a revolutionary fervor an almost religious feeling for the interpretation of nature. I came out of this retrospective exhibition shaken to the core" (quoted in ibid., pp. 19-20). James Herbert has commented, "Vlaminck may well have depended on the lessons of Van Gogh to a greater degree than any other Fauve before 1907 relied on a single artistic predecessor. The filiation was not lost on at least one perceptive critic. In his review of the Salon des Indpendants of 1907, Vauxcelles declared: 'M. de Vlaminck is a virulent image-maker who drives bourgeois spectators to fury and confusion; a singular temperament that recalls Van Gogh, with a slighter accent no doubt'" (op. cit., p. 27).
At Chatou, Vlaminck painted a wide range of motifs, including the arched highway bridge and the activity of sailboats, tugboats, and laundry barges along the river. Herbert has written, "The sheer variety of scenes portrayed by Vlaminck at Chatou... promotes the importance of the site itself. Vlaminck trekked up and down the Seine, staying close to the river and moving into the hinterland, to present a seemingly comprehensive view of life in and around Chatou. His vision cast itself as a roving reportorial eye, capturing all types of landscape, of people, of activities, in the Parisian suburbs. These things, Vlaminck's paintings insist, are worth taking the trouble to observe" (ibid., p. 33). The present painting depicts one of Vlaminck's favorite motifs, the view from the Ile de Chatou across the river to the red-roofed houses in the center of town. He painted similar compositions repeatedly during his Fauve years, both at Chatou and at neighboring towns such as Bougival, generally depicting a cluster of houses nestled in a dense, verdant thicket of trees and foliage, often (as here) from a slightly elevated vantage point (figs. 3-6).
In the present version of this favored scene, the view is rendered almost exclusively in vivid, unmodulated shades of yellow, blue, and green, applied in thick, aggressive strokes that lend the canvas a relentless, almost manic, energy. Vermillion accents appear throughout the canvas: for instance, in the trunks of the trees, the roofs of the houses, and the rustic gate in the middle ground. In contrast to Derain, who often employed unusual viewpoints and unexpected cropping to generate instability in his Fauve canvases, Vlaminck's compositions tend to be more conventionally balanced. In the present painting, the landscape is trisected into three horizontal bands, recalling the paysages composés of Poussin and Claude, and the spindly red trees at either edge of the canvas act as a traditional framing device. The wide swath of lemon-yellow draws the viewer's eye into the composition at the bottom right and leads it emphatically toward the center of the canvas. Klein has explained, "Vlaminck's incendiary color and furious brush strokes [are] draped on orderly compositions of familiar subjects... They share with traditions of topographical illustration, as well as with the contemporary photographic-view postcard, the scenic values of legibility and comprehensibility that many of Derain's canvases lack... In Chatou and its environs, Derain and Vlaminck had different ways of taking possession of the landscape they knew so well. Derain's solution was often to make the familiar look strange... Vlaminck, by contrast, sought confirmation of his deeply held attitudes and preferred to reiterate, not rupture, the familiar. Despite the want of conviviality in his painting, Vlaminck thus seems allied with Renoir, who lamented many of the changes that shaped the modern world" (exh. cat., op. cit., Los Angeles, 1990, pp. 136 and 146).
Indeed, during the period of time that Fauvism dominated the French avant-garde, Chatou was undergoing dramatic changes. By the early twentieth century, the increasing amount of commercial traffic on the Seine near Chatou had driven away recreational boaters, and the tourist industry there was in decline as a result. Although the Restaurant Fournaise, where Renoir painted Le déjeuner des canotiers, was still in business, many of the other riverside cafés on the Ile de Chatou had closed their doors. Moreover, urban crowding in Paris and improvements in rail service had brought about an invasion of new bourgeois landowners from the capital, who (much to the dismay of anarchist sympathizers) constructed homes on land once tilled by small-scale market gardeners. A self-professed anarchist, Vlaminck published articles in the movement's press as early as 1900 and was vehemently anti-bourgeois in his rhetoric. It would not be surprising, therefore, if he were deeply ambivalent about his surroundings at Chatou; he loved the place and considered it his home, but may have felt alienated from its growing middle-class constituency (who, significantly, are rarely represented in his work). This tension is reflected in the paintings that he made at Chatou, as Richard Thomson has explained: "There is ambivalence in Vlaminck's images of the suburbs. Contributor to anarchist periodicals, he painted middle-class dormitory 'villages' nestling in trees; fierce detractor of the railways ('a gaping sore which admits infection') he represented the comings-and-goings of the industrialized Seine; wishing to protect as changeless the locality in which he had been brought up, he produced images of diversity and modernity" (Monet to Matisse: Landscape Painting in France, 1874-1914, exh. cat., National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1994, p. 37).
The absence of figures in many of Vlaminck's paintings from Chatou, including the present example, is noteworthy in this light. The lack of any human presence serves to generalize the landscape, taking a town undergoing dramatic changes and rendering it almost universal or idyllic. It may also have been a way for Vlaminck to gain some distance from the profound identification that he felt with his landscape motifs. At the same time, Herbert has suggested that Vlaminck may (perhaps inadvertently) have adopted the image of the bourgeoisie on his canvases, depicting the suburbs much as they would have appeared to the recent purchaser of a suburban home: "The central object of these works is that which the bourgeoisie had left Paris to claim as its own: the landscape itself. Many of Vlaminck's views of the suburbs lack any human actors whatsoever... [They are like] an empty stage set, waiting for the arrival of an unnamed protagonist to fill its space. We know now the name of the class that was in the process of occupying such suburban spaces in the years that Vlaminck painted his canvases. In another sense, however, the [landscape]... is filled to capacity with the corpulent brush strokes and bright primary colors of Vlaminck's paints... Such seemingly abstract passages... could represent something: an autonomous personality that declared through art its possession of the land. Vlaminck, in the name of artistic individuality, formulated in his Fauve canvases a means by which the gradual occupation of the suburbs by the new residential bourgeoisie could be represented on canvas without the class showing its face" (op. cit., p. 54).
(fig. 1) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le déjeuner des canotiers, 1880-1881. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
(fig. 2) Vincent Van Gogh, Vineyards with a View of Auvers, 1890. Saint Louis Art Museum.
(fig. 3) Maurice de Vlaminck, Vue de Chatou, 1906. Tel Aviv Museum.
(fig. 4) Maurice de Vlaminck, Maisons et arbres, 1906. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
(fig. 5) Maurice de Vlaminck, La colline à Bougival, 1906. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart.
(fig. 6) Maurice de Vlaminck, Maisons à Chatou, 1905-1906. The Art Institute of Chicago.