‘The first year [in L’Estaque] was the pure enthusiasm, the astonishment of the Parisian who discovers the Midi’
(Braque, quoted in J. Russell, G. Braque, London, 1959, p. 8).
'For me Fauvism was a momentary adventure in which I became involved because I was young... I was freed from the studios, only twenty-four, and full of enthusiasm. I moved toward what for me represented novelty and joy, toward Fauvism’
(Braque, quoted in A. Danchev, Georges Braque, A Life, London, 2005, p. 41).
‘It’s there that I felt all the elation, all the joy, welling up inside me. Just imagine, I left the drab, gloomy Paris studios where you were still working in bitumen. There, by contrast, what a revelation, what a blossoming!’
(Braque, quoted in A. Danchev, Georges Braque, A Life, London, 2005, p. 41).
Painted in 1906, L’Estaque is a rare Fauvist landscape by Georges Braque. Dating from his first ever trip to the south of France, this dazzling, colour-filled painting is among the first truly Avant-garde works Braque created, marking the first stage on his journey to Cubism. Inspired by the defiant, iconoclastic work of the Fauves, including Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck, Braque adopted the same liberated palette in his depiction of the sun-soaked south coast of France. In L’Estaque this panoramic vista of the bay pulsates with redolent energy; bold, unmixed hues throb next to each other, their searing energy heightened by the white ground that lies between them. Each stroke of saturated, unmodulated and almost abstract colour exudes a visual power that conjures the intense heat and light of the Midi and the artist’s instinctive, ecstatic response at finding himself in this intoxicating corner of southern France. With its expansive viewpoint, its kaleidoscopic palette of jubilant colour, and its bold execution, L’Estaque is arguably one of the most accomplished and radical works of his first, seminal southern sojourn. A work that captures something of the daring experimentation, freedom and exuberance of youth, this painting occupies an important place within Braque’s early development; a period that would see the artist develop, alongside Picasso, one of the greatest artistic revolutions since the Renaissance: Cubism.
Braque had travelled to L’Estaque, a small fishing-port near Marseille, in the autumn of 1906. Up until this point, the artist, who was born in Argenteuil and grew up in Le Havre in the north of France, had never ventured further south than Paris; indeed, as the artist recalled, the only experience he had had of the south was through the radical work that Matisse and Derain had painted the previous year at Collioure. Through the summer he had been working with fellow northern Fauve, Othon Friesz, in Antwerp. After returning to Paris in September, the pair set off for the Midi, arriving in L’Estaque in October. His arrival in the south hit Braque with the force of an epiphany. The rugged landscape, deep blue Mediterranean sea, rich, luminous light and raw colours of Provence were a sheer revelation for the artist; he exclaimed, ‘It’s there that I felt all the elation, all the joy, welling up inside me. Just imagine, I left the drab, gloomy Paris studios where you were still working in bitumen. There, by contrast, what a revelation, what a blossoming!’ (Braque, quoted in A. Danchev, Georges Braque, A Life, London, 2005, p. 41).
Here, Braque’s nascent Fauvist idiom took flight. He had first witnessed the work of the Fauves the year before in Paris, at the notorious Salon d’Automne of 1905. It was here that the radical painting of Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck, among others, had been exhibited, resulting in the critic, Louis Vauxcelles, terming this group of artists the ‘Fauves’ or ‘Wild Beasts’. These explosively coloured, radically executed and unmediated landscapes and portraits marked a definitive end to Impressionism – a movement whose influence Braque was at the time trying to rid himself of – and opened up the possibilities for the avant-garde of the new century. Presenting a new realm of instinctive pictorial possibility, one that was not tied to illusionism nor conventional rules of perspective or tonal modelling, the Fauve aesthetic opened Braque’s eyes to a new direction; as he recalled, ‘For me that “jaunty” aspect of colour was stimulating. A reassuring physical presence. The Fauves were savages, of a sort. Impressionism had become domesticated, played out, mannered’ (Braque, quoted in ibid., p. 37).
Inspired by the sheer exuberance of the force and purity of colour applied to the canvas without a descriptive or representational function, Braque began to forge his own Fauvist style. However, it wasn’t until he experienced first hand the unique atmosphere of the south of France – one of the definitive stimuli for the Fauve artists – that his painting became truly Fauvist. ‘I may say that my first paintings of L’Estaque were already conceived before my departure’, he later recalled. ‘I took great care, nevertheless, to place them under the influence of the light, the atmosphere, and the reviving effect of the rain on the colours’ (Braque, quoted in ibid., p. 41). Under the intense light of the Midi, Braque’s canvases were ignited with glowing, incandescent colour that was applied with rough, rapid brushstrokes that gradually fragmented into individual strokes, as evidenced in the present work. He found in the south a liberation, the expansive, heat and haze-filled views, distant horizon and clear, deep blue sky offering the opportunity to forge a new form of landscape painting, one that was not exclusively bound to representation.
L’Estaque is one of this initial series of gloriously coloured, increasingly liberated paintings. Capturing the view from the coast, Braque has pictured both the sparkling azure waters of the gulf of Marseille, as well as the undulating hills that fall into the bay, with the factories and smoke stacks of the town of L’Estaque just visible on other side of the sea. Unlike the other landscapes that he painted at this time, in the present work colour has been truly liberated from a naturalistic role. The sea is no longer blue but rendered with soft mauve strokes, evoking the intensity of the light, highlighted in places by deep turquoise. Likewise, the hill in the immediate foreground has been transformed into an array of yellow, crimson and flaming orange, the pine tree that rests vertiginously on the edge rendered with tones of red and yellow. As Matisse and Derain had already done the previous summer, the composition is no longer constructed with conventional, illusionistic means, but rather with colour. In the present work, a flaming orange arabesque – the line of the hill in the immediate foreground – dances diagonally from left to right through the composition, creating the boundary between land and sea, and lending the picture its essential structure. While in the foreground, Braque has used short strokes of colour, in the background, these blend, becoming more unified to convey the mass of the landscape beyond. With this dynamic chromatic means of execution and its explosive palette, L’Estaque comes the closest of this 1906 group to embodying most clearly the central tenets of Fauvism. Yet at the same time, this painting also captures the artist’s initial, unmediated and instinctive reactions to the atmosphere of the south. ‘The first year there was the pure enthusiasm’, he later recalled, ‘the astonishment of the Parisian who discovers the Midi. The next year, that had already changed. I should have had to push on down to Senegal to get the same result. You can’t count on enthusiasm for more than ten months’ (Braque, quoted in J. Russell, G. Braque, London, 1959, p. 8).
Of Braque’s brief Fauvist period – he only worked in this idiom for two years before his abiding interest in form took precedence – L’Estaque is one of few paintings that comes the closest to the style of Matisse. As Matisse had developed the summer before, in the present work Braque has integrated the white ground of the canvas itself into the composition, constructing form out of emptiness, while at the same time, heightening the visual force of the complementary or contrasting strokes of colour. Like Matisse’s Vue de Collioure of 1905 (Heritage Museum, St. Petersburg), which shares a similar palette to Braque’s L’Estaque, the landscape appears to shimmer in the heat, the artist conveying so effectively the force of the radiant light on the landscape.
L’Estaque was by no means an undiscovered corner of the Midi. Indeed, with the power of hindsight, this small, industrial port served in many ways as a crucible for the development of modern art. Some forty years prior to Braque’s pilgrimage there, Paul Cézanne had already immortalised the yawning bay and majestic landscape in his innovative and monumental paintings of this area, transforming the ephemeral sensation of nature into something tangible and unmoving. His childhood friend and later acclaimed writer, Emile Zola evocatively described L’Estaque, conjuring imagery that can be recognised in both Cézanne and Braque’s depictions of this inspirational area:
‘A village just outside of Marseilles, in the centre of an alley of rocks which close the bay… The country is superb. The arms of rock stretch out on either side of the gulf…and the sea is but a vast basin, a lake of brilliant blue when the weather is fine. At the foot of the mountains the houses of Marseilles are seen on different levels of the low hills when the air is clear one can see, from L’Estaque, the grey Joliette breakwater and the thin masts of the vessels in the port… When the sun falls perpendicularly to the horizon, the sea, almost black, seems to sleep between the two promontories of rocks whose whiteness is relieved by yellow and brown. The pines dot the red earth with green. It is a vast panorama, a corner of the Orient rising up in the blinding vibration of the day’ (E. Zola, quoted in J. Rewald, Paul Cézanne, London, n.d. pp. 80-81).
Perhaps following the example of Cézanne, as well as Van Gogh, whose name and art are indelibly wedded to Provence, and to some extent, Gauguin, who joined him there for a time, a host of artists of the early 20th Century fell under the spell of the insatiable allure of the south. Immersed in the vibrating, all immersive light and the resultant luminous colours there, these artists were able to make decisive leaps forward in their art. In 1904, Matisse spent a transformational summer in Saint Tropez at the home of Paul Signac, and in 1905, he returned to the coast, this time to Collioure where he was joined by Derain. A year later, Derain, like Braque, had discovered the artistic potentials of L’Estaque, his summer there responsible for a shift in his art as his landscape painting moved from the ephemeral and transient, to embody something more monumental.
For Braque, however, like his hero Cézanne before him, it was in L’Estaque that the greatest leaps of his art would be made. He remained in the Midi until the spring of 1907, when he returned to Paris, yet was quickly lured back to the south, venturing once more to L’Estaque and La Ciotat, another coastal town, in June until the autumn of that year. For Braque, L’Estaque would remain one of the most important places of his early career, serving as the backdrop for his increasingly radical artistic discoveries. When he returned there once again in 1908, he captured the landscape with a completely different pictorial language, transforming the same rolling hills, sky and sea into a series of dense, cubistically rendered planes of muted colour.