Painted in 1909, L'église de Carrières-Saint-Denis dates from the early moments of Cubism. It is in the late landscapes of Braque's transitional period that the bare bones of the movement truly consolidated. Now, he had advanced on Cézanne in rendering form in two dimensions, and he needed only his return to his studio in Paris and his collaboration with Picasso for full-blown Cubism to be born. Pepe Karmel has related about the period from 1909-1910, “the dialogue between Picasso and Braque seems to have been most intense.” (E. Braun and R. Rabinow, Cubism: The Leonard Lauder Collection, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2014, p. 43).
Braque's most important artistic developments took place in the years leading up to the painting of L'église de Carrières-Saint-Denis. Despite having been an accomplished Fauve artist, he went through a second formative period, and it was in his landscapes that he made the greatest progress. The importance of the early landscapes, such as the present work, is reflected in the fact that the year before this picture was painted, the critic Louis Vauxcelles had discussed similar Braque landscapes, “M. Braque is an exceedingly bold young man...He despises form and reduces everything, landscapes and figures and houses, to geometrical patterns, to cubes” (Vauxcelles, quoted in E. Mullins, The Art of Georges Braque, New York, 1968, p. 44). It is an enduring irony that his slightly condescending words would end up coining the word “Cubism”.
L'église de Carrières-Saint-Denis reveals the speed with which Braque had capitalized on the lessons he learned from Cézanne's paintings. The year after the Master of Aix had died, a large posthumous retrospective had been organized. Thus in 1907, many of the young and avant-garde artists of the day, who had been only vaguely aware of Cézanne's works, had epiphanies when confronted with his explorations of form in oils and on paper. The influence of Gauguin and Van Gogh which had been felt throughout the Fauves and the Expressionists was supplanted by the dramatic, and more profound, questions that were raised by Cézanne's painting, a visual language that conveyed a sense of volume and of three-dimensionality despite the two-dimensional nature of the medium.
It was in his landscapes that Cézanne had explored these issues, and this was the format that Braque also took. Even after his initial viewing of ten Cézanne pictures exhibited in 1906, Braque had taken off for L'Estaque, a landscape which had rich associations with Cézanne, who had immortalized it in his works. The steady development of Braque's art can be seen in some of his L'Estaque paintings, which begin as Fauve images with an increased sense of structure and end as multi-faceted, crystalline forms that perfectly harness the interplay between buildings, trees and landscape. This evolution is visible in the comparison between the Fauve landscapes he created there in 1906, the transitional ones, for instance Viaduc à L'Estaque from early 1908 (Centre Georges Pompidou), and then finally the 1910 picture of Les usines de Rio-Tinto à L'Estaque (Centre Georges Pompidou). By extension, this same process of development also filled and fuelled Braque's landscapes in other parts of France. L'église de Carrières-Saint-Denis depicts a scene near Chatou and marks the culmination of Braque's transitional, proto-Cubist period. Only a short time after this work was painted, Braque would forsake the landscapes in which he had made so much progress and would focus instead on still life and portraits. He would only rarely, and decades later, return to the landscape after this. Thus L'église de Carrières-Saint-Denis is an exceptionally rare work in showcasing the state of Braque's avant-garde vision just before its incredible transformation with Cubism. It marks the final culmination of his development, of his growth and of his maturity as an artist.
Suffused with an even light, L'église de Carrières-Saint-Denis shows Braque's interest in form, but also reveals his deft ability with color. Isabelle Monod-Fontaine explains that in 1909 “Picasso and Braque both moved toward a reduction of color...[Braque] used white for his light areas...He used black with moderation to add washed-out shadows” (op.cit., exh. cat., New York, 2014, p. 61 and 64). The light in this picture and the deliberately muted shades that form the buildings show a mature and understated evolution of the colorism that had driven so much of his earlier Fauve period works. This is particularly apt as it was with his old friend Derain, Braque stayed at Carrières-Saint-Denis. There, he painted only a handful of works, of which two others are in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection and the Centre Georges Pompidou. However, these pictures show that the art that Braque was producing was now completely different to that of his fellow Fauve—only a couple of years earlier Derain had written to other Fauve artists voicing his concern at the alarming developments in his friend's paintings. In a letter to Vlaminck in 1907, he had written of Braque and Friesz that, “Their idea is young and to them seems new; they'll get over it. There are other things than that to be done” (Derain, letter to Vlaminck, quoted in W. Rubin, Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989, p. 344).
It was just after L'église de Carrières-Saint-Denis was painted that Braque and Picasso embarked on the full-blown adventure of Cubism. The similarity in the paths that they had chosen was already clear, as is shown in the paintings that Picasso had almost simultaneously been painting in Horta. The two artists were pursuing similar goals from different angles. Picasso's interest in Cézanne was less focused than Braque's, and was supplemented by an interest in African and Oceanic art. The fact that the two artists sought similar goals through different means was to have an impact even on Braque's works. This came about through the legendary dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler—through whom Braque was introduced to the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who in turn took the painter to the studio of his friend Pablo Picasso. There, the Spanish painter was at work on his masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Braque was shocked, yet completely enthralled. What he saw in Picasso's masterpiece-in-progress he could not ignore, and it was in a sense this work that liberated him, that gave him the confidence to embark on his extensive exploration of a means of capturing form on canvas.
Kahnweiler's indirect influence on Braque in bringing about his minor revelation in Picasso's studio was later surpassed by his role as the godfather of Cubism. For it was Kahnweiler, through whose hands L'église de Carrières-Saint-Denis passed, who organized the first exhibitions of Braque and Picasso, as well as all the early exhibitions of Cubism. L'église de Carrières-Saint-Denis is therefore an important painting from one of the highpoints of Braque's career, one of the last and most fully developed of his transitional paintings, and a testimony to the various characters who formed the avant-garde of the time, and who would shake up the entire history and development of modern art.