Maurice de Vlaminck's Les régates à Bougival was painted in 1905. With its highly-keyed oils arranged sometimes in slab-like tesserae of pure colour, this lush, mosaic-like and visually intense vision of a boat race on the Seine near Paris proudly reveals its bold Fauve credentials. Indeed, this picture dates from the height of that short-lived yet highly-influential movement: it was during the same year that the movement gained its name, meaning 'Wild Beasts', when they exhibited their works at the Salon d'Automne.
This picture combines the Fauve aesthetic, with its firework-like dashes of rich lapis and gold, with the theme of Vlaminck's beloved Seine. The regatta that is ostensibly the subject of this picture is dwarfed by the sensual beauty of the blue- and green-dominated landscape itself. The small rowing boats, along with the effervescent scattering of largely red dots that describe the watching crowd on the river bank, are subsumed by the wonders of nature and the scenery, Vlaminck's great loves. And those loves are shown in the territory which he so enthusiastically staked out, near and around Chatou, where he lived. Bougival, just a little further along the river, had been a popular beauty spot near Paris; a few decades earlier, this same landscape had formed the so-called 'Cradle of Impressionism'. By the time that Vlaminck was painting, the place had become less popular as transport farther afield had become easier; similarly, some of the old haunts made famous by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet were no longer as frequently visited as they had been. But the legacy of the Impressionists remained strong: Vlaminck grew up knowing the landscape and indeed some of the characters who had provided the backdrop to this forge of Impressionism, such as Alphonse Fournaise. Vlaminck's decision to tackle the specific landscapes that had earlier been painted so lovingly, with such attention to the wind and light effects, by the Impressionists such as Monet, Renoir, Edouard Manet and Alfred Sisley revealed his iconoclasm: he was taking their legacy and grappling with it, creating a new, more subjective, more immediate vision of nature and of life.
This picture provides an excellent insight into the development of the Fauve aesthetic. It is filled with swirling movement, the brushstrokes recalling the pictures of one of Vlaminck's great heroes, the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, whose works he appears to have seen for the first time at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1901, where a posthumous exhibition was held. The similarity between the work of the two painters, the apogees of their careers separated by less than two decades, is especially clear in the swirling, spiralling whirlpool-like configuration of brushstrokes in the sky near the dark, vertical shard of the cypress tree which itself is so reminiscent of Van Gogh's works. However, in Les régates à Bougival, Vlaminck has pushed the use of pure colour to new extremes.
The landscape that dominates the centre of Les régates à Bougival appears to be covered in luxuriant foliage; this implies that the picture dates from earlier in 1905 than the famous Salon d'Automne, which opened in October that year. It may date from the Summer, which was a vital formative period for both Vlaminck and his fellow Fauve, André Derain. The pair had met half a decade earlier, apparently walking back to Chatou together after the train that they were taking had derailed. They had each recognised the other as lone artists working within the same landscape around Chatou and, after cautious probing, had realised that their artistic interests largely intersected. For Vlaminck, the admiration of the younger Derain marked the first acceptance of his work and a vital spur in his career. Although they would be separated during Derain's military service, the pair worked and corresponded intensely, forming the basis for their art.
During the Summer of 1905, the two artists spent another period of time apart, as Derain went on holiday in Collioure with Henri Matisse, forming a duo who encouraged each other in new directions. Vlaminck, by contrast, stayed in the neighbourhood that he knew and loved and where he continued to thrive, frequently corresponding with his friend, discussing the development of their ideas, but crucially continuing to new expressionistic extremes in Derain's absence. 'I had no wish for a change of scene,' he explained. '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 colours of the atmosphere, the sky with its great clouds and its patches of sun, these were what I wanted to paint' (Vlaminck, quoted in J. Freeman, Fauves, exh. cat., Sydney, 1995, p. 220).
Matisse was the elder statesman of the Fauves: having already met Derain, he had been introduced by him to the anarchic, looming figure of Vlaminck and had been bowled over by the paintings that the pair had been creating, largely side-by-side, in their relative seclusion in Chatou. Matisse had found that their pursuit of pure colour tallied with his own experiments, and indeed took them to a bold new level, as he was still anchored largely in Pointillism while Derain and Vlaminck were creating their incredible, explosive pictures using untrammelled palettes, applying thick channels of pure, unmixed paint to their canvases, filling them with life and colour. This is clear in Les régates à Bougival in the different blues and whites which have been used to depict the sky, in the range of marks including the reflected reds that give such a vibrant sense of motion to the surface of the water and to the pulsing foliage, so much of which has been rendered using thick, elegantly looping arcs of green. Matisse's support and encouragement were vital to the wider dissemination and indeed acceptance of their work.
This was perhaps best demonstrated by Matisse's promotion of Vlaminck and Derain in 1905, latterly at the Salon d'Automne but also crucially earlier at the Salon des Indépendants. There, Matisse was placed in charge of the hanging committee, appointed by Paul Signac; accordingly, Vlaminck's works were exhibited and indeed the show marked the beginning of his financial success as an artist, as he made his first sale from the exhibition.
Crucially, it was following that show and through Matisse's intervention that Vlaminck was also visited by the legendary gallerist Ambroise Vollard, whose decision to support him would change his direction entirely. Vollard's own recollections of this transaction are instructive:
'I had already met Vlaminck by chance, without knowing it. One day in the rue Laffitte I had passed a tall, powerful fellow whose red scarf, knotted round his neck, might have suggested some militant anarchist, if, from the way in which he was carrying a canvas, I had not immediately recognised him for an artist. As far as I remember, the picture in question represented a sunset which appeared to have been squeezed out of tubes of paint in a fit of rage. The effect was startling. The man with the red scarf had kind, peaceable eyes, but one expected to see him bellow, "If anyone laughs at my painting, I'll bash his face in." One could not help jibbing a bit at a painting like that; all the same, there was something exciting in it that made me wish to get into touch with its author. What was my surprise the day Matisse took me to Vlaminck's studio! Here was the painter with the red scarf. This time he was wearing a wooden tie of his own invention, the colours of which he changed to suit his fancy. The landscapes covering the walls of the studio were so many challenges to the bourgeois whose idea of nature is of something tame and tidied up. Nevertheless, far from being put off by this outrance, I bought everything Vlaminck showed me' (A. Vollard, Recollections of a Picture Dealer, trans. V.M. MacDonald, New York, 2002, pp. 200-01).
Vollard's initial purchase of Vlaminck's works from his studio marked the beginning of his life as an artist, rather than a competitive cyclist, novelist or violinist, all of which were also livelihoods to which he had turned. This was in part due to Vlaminck's incredibly straitened circumstances. Having married while still a teenager, he had soon been blessed with two children, meaning that he had a family to support. He did this through a variety of means, including violin lessons and playing. Jovially recalling those moments of intense poverty during the earlier part of his life, Vlaminck would tell a tale that reflects upon his enthusiasm for boating, which is the subject of Les régates à Bougival with its rowers making their way along the Seine. One Sunday, he remembered, he had had to walk from Nanterre to Paris to give a violin lesson, and returned by foot to his parents' home, hoping to be in time for a meal. However, on arrival, he found that they had already eaten:
'Living entirely on hope, and not at all put out by this bad luck, I made for the Pont de Chatou and went to see Alphonse Fournaise. Fournaise used to hire out canoes. Like all once-successful men, he liked young people who reminded him of his own great days. He liked me. That day, there was a regatta organised by the local people under the patronage of Maurice Bertoux, the Minister for War. I had only one idea - to win the prize. There were a dozen competitors, and I took my place in a canoe lent by Fournaise. In spite of the twenty-four kilometres I had done since the morning, I would rather have died than lose the prize. I won, and a few minutes later, to the cheers of the crowd, I mounted the rostrum. The Marseillaise played; my trembling hands received a superb metal reproduction of the Victory of Samothrace. Stowing it in the bottom of the boat, I set off again, gave the canoe back to Fournaise and thanked him, then made straight for the pawnbroker on the corner of the bridge. He gave me thirty francs, and the Victory of Samothrace underwent a rapid transformation into a four-pound steak' (Vlaminck, quoted in J.P. Crespelle, The Fauves, London, 1962, p. 109).