Maurice de Vlaminck painted Arbres à la maison bleue in 1906, when the Fauvism which he had helped to pioneer was at its apogee. It was only the previous year that he had exhibited his bold, colouristic works at the Salon d'Automne, causing extreme reactions in the viewers ranging from rage to fascination. Taking his cue in part from the works of Vincent van Gogh, Vlaminck sought to create pictures that were filled with colour, life and beauty. This is clearly the case in Arbres à la maison bleue, which features a range of bold areas of colour, many of them deliberately eschewing any sense of volume or modelling. Instead, the trees are represented with the brown of the bark and the yellow and green of the leaves; the house in the background is white, topped with its blue roof, while the water in front of it has been captured through the depiction of the building's reflection.
While Arbres à la maison bleue clearly shows the Fauve aesthetic at work, it also hints at Vlaminck's increasing interest in pictorial structure: the composition appears constructed and recalls the paintings of Paul Cézanne such as his Château de Medan, now in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow. Cézanne would die at the end of 1906; his posthumous retrospective the following year would lead to a sea-change in Vlaminck's paintings and precipitated the rapid end of his involvement in Fauvism. Intriguingly, Cézanne's influence appears hintingly revealed, or at least anticipated, in the composition of Arbres à la maison bleue.
There are relatively few paintings extant from Vlaminck's Fauve period precisely because of the speed with which his style changed after exposure to Cézanne's works in the 1907 exhibition. Looking at La maison dans les arbres of 1908, now in the Musée national d'Art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, this new-found interest in the structure of the picture is clearly in evidence. The palette had already been leeched of the vivid colourism which is still in evidence in the warm tones of Arbres à la maison bleue, despite the similarities of their themes, with houses in the background and trees in the foreground. By 1908, Vlaminck had seen and absorbed the large-scale retrospective of the previous year. However, by the time he painted Arbres à la maison bleue, Vlaminck would doubtless already have been exposed to Cézanne's works: a small selection had been shown at the Salon d'Automnes of 1905 and 1906, in which Vlaminck himself participated.
The rarity of Vlaminck's Fauve pictures is all the more extreme because, at the beginning, he had been unable to afford painting materials and therefore had to re-use canvases in many cases. The 1905 Salon d'Automne marked the moment that Vlaminck charged onto the stage of the Parisian avant garde, despite remaining firmly ensconced in the suburbs of the French capital such as Chatou, where he painted the Seine, his greatest Muse. However, it was at the beginning of 1906 that he sold his pictures to the dealer Ambroise Vollard. Looking back on this period, Vollard would recall meeting Vlaminck without knowing him, describing '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.' Vollard said the picture Vlaminck was carrying '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."' Vollard was later brought to Vlaminck's studio by Henri Matisse, the older artist who had found that Vlaminck and his friend André Derain had been working along similar lines to the developments in his own works at the time:
'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).
This occurred in May 1906, and resulted in a great release in Vlaminck's works: he was now able to contemplate living as an artist and giving up working as a professional violinist. As he explained: 'Once my means allowed me to buy canvases, I experienced a physical pleasure when applying colours. As I had no obligations attendant on me, nor did I contemplate having to obey any rules, and I had not a care in the world about what others thought of me, I allowed my revolutionary instincts to run free, without any set idea except that of enjoying myself and of "wasting my time", as my father so ably put it!' (Vlaminck, quoted in M. Vallès-Bled, Vlaminck, Catalogue critique des peintures et céramiques, vol. I, La période fauve, 1900-1907, Paris, 2008, p. 182).
Judging by its autumnal colours, Arbres à la maison bleue would appear to have been painted sometime after Vollard's purchase of the contents of Vlaminck's studio, which took place in May 1906; indeed, it may date from after the second show of Cézanne's works in the Salon d'Automne (but is still crucially from before the watershed of the major retrospective of the following year). After all, there is a vivid contrast in the treatment of the subject in this picture and in La maison bleue, often ascribed to 1906 but recently given a date of 1905 in the new catalogue raisonné. That picture, now in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, shows the tendril-like trees in the foreground forming organic counterpoints to the rigidity of the angular building, as is the case in Arbres à la maison bleue, yet has a more frantic air about it, with the incandescent colour flung energetically onto the canvas. Similarly, Le jardin, titled Jardin public à Carrières-Saint-Denis when it was sold in Christie's New York in 1999, involves heady swirls of colour that are less evident in the more composed yet nonetheless vivid Arbres à la maison bleue. This picture instead relates more closely to Les arbres rouges, also of 1906 and likewise suffused with autumnal hues, which is now in the Musée national d'Art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Arbres à la maison bleue was formerly owned by Knud Abildgaard, a prominent Danish industrialist who for many decades helmed the company LEO Pharma, which had been founded in 1908 by his father-in-law, August Kongsted. Abildgaard was a philanthropist who, in 1984, set up the LEO Foundation. In a move that echoed that of his fellow Danes, the Carlsbergs, earlier in the Twentieth Century, Abildgaard left the company that had allowed him to set up the foundation in its entirety to that foundation. This has allowed LEO Pharma to operate as a not-for-profit organisation, creating a platform which has allowed them to carry out groundbreaking research. Abildgaard was also a significant collector, owning works by Georges Braque and Kees van Dongen as well as Vlaminck.