‘Cézanne had the good fortune to possess an obstinate streak, which made him put aside everything he had ever learned, the better to attack pictorial problems. He opens a door to point out a road and invite you to take a walk with him into the world of art’ -Maurice de Vlaminck
In late 1906, Vlaminck—heretofore a most instinctual painter, indisposed to theorising, prolonged reflection, or self-doubt—found himself confronted with pressing questions, searching for a new path forward in his art. For the previous two years, he had given himself over unreservedly to pure, incendiary colour as his abiding means of expression, a method that perfectly matched his fervid and impetuous temperament. This unfettered embrace of colour placed Vlaminck—together with the elder Matisse and the more cautious Derain—at the very forefront of the Fauve revolution that took the art world by storm in 1905. Now, though, Vlaminck began to feel that he had explored the full gamut of expressive possibilities that the colourful surfaces of Fauvism afforded. ‘I realised that my composition was reduced to no more than a series of coloured rhythms,’ he recalled, ‘and that I was falling into the trap of decoration. I no longer got to the bottom of things: I no longer cut through to their heart’ (Vlaminck, Dangerous Corner, New York, 1961, p. 61).
Having taken lessons from the provincial naïf artist Henri Rigal, but otherwise self-taught as a painter, Vlaminck took pride in working as a primitive. The only artist whom he had emulated thus far was Van Gogh—another auto-didact, as well as an outsider with an all-consuming, inner-directed passion for painting. ‘I’ve never thought about art,’ Vlaminck insisted, ‘about classical art, Greek or Italian; with my cobalts and vermilions, I wished to burn down the École des Beaux-Arts and to render my impressions without any thought for what has been achieved in the past. Once colours were in my hands, I couldn’t give a damn about other men’s work; life and I, I and life’ (Vlaminck, ibid., p. 11).
As Vlaminck sought to re-direct his pictorial priorities from expression through colour alone, though, another exemplary painter emerged fortuitously to light his way—Paul Cézanne, recently deceased, who had worked during much of his late career in isolation, far from Paris. The 1906 Salon d’Automne, which opened in early October, featured a mini-retrospective of ten major paintings by the reclusive painter, who died midway through the show’s run; a large memorial exhibition of his work at the Salon the following fall elevated the late master to heights of modernist veneration, revealing new ways of visualising and painting the world. ‘Cézanne had the good fortune to possess an obstinate streak, which made him put aside everything he had ever learned, the better to attack pictorial problems,’ Vlaminck wrote. ‘He opens a door to point out a road and invite you to take a walk with him into the world of art’ (Vlaminck, ibid., pp. 141-142).
Painted in 1907, Nature morte bleue bears witness to the new directions that Cézanne’s work opened up for Vlaminck, guiding him toward the construction of volumetric form in spatial depth as a counterweight to the decorative, surface-bound quality of extreme colour. In a radical break with his Fauve manner, he painted the canvas almost entirely in tonal shades of blue, enabling him to develop more fully the plastic qualities of the image. ‘I wanted to paint the object itself, with its weight and density,’ he explained (ibid., p. 15). Conflicting perspectives animate the still-life assemblage, with the fruit bowl shown from above, the vase full-face, and the jug perilously off-balance, seemingly floating against the subtly modulated blue ground. The cascading folds in the tablecloth resolve into a series of converging lines that define a rapid recession into depth, culminating at the trapezoidal block of light that articulates the rear wall of the interior.
Scattered pentimenti suggest that Vlaminck originally painted the present canvas with a brighter, more varied, and characteristically Fauve palette, but he subsequently opted to restrict his use of contrasting hues to the pure forms of the fruit, circumscribing the flat fields of orange and yellow with expressive black contours. ‘Even though he produced only a few still-lifes at this time,’ Maïthe Vallès- Bled has noted, ‘these were the painter’s preferred vehicle for new research, in particular in relation to the treatment of form’ (M. Vallès-Bled, op. cit., 2008, p. 413). What he could not keep in check, however, was the fervour in his painting, here manifest in the intensity of the design and, more significantly, in the thick, multi-directional brushwork. This passionately gestural touch forcefully asserts the physicality of the paint, conveying Vlaminck’s immediate, subjective experience of art-making, which ultimately transcended for him any conceptual calculation.
Vlaminck was hardly the only modern painter to explore new means of construction in 1907, with the example of Cézanne as a stimulus to innovation. Matisse and Derain, his erstwhile fellow Fauves, exhibited competing nudes at the Salon des Indépendants in that year—Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra (Baltimore Museum of Art) and Baigneuses I (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), respectively—both of which privilege tonal modelling and sculptural form over pure colour. By the time the show opened, Derain had switched his allegiance from Matisse to Picasso, then hard at work on Les demoiselles d’Avignon, and had brought Vlaminck into the boisterous, aggressively vanguard bande à Picasso as well. ‘Feeling that he had exhausted the expressive properties of his Fauve style,’ John Elderfield has written, ‘Vlaminck would undoubtedly have been attracted to the primitivized Cézannism of Picasso in 1907, at this time almost expressionist art’ (J. Elderfield, The ‘Wild Beasts’: Fauvism and Its Affinities, New York, 1976, p. 129).
Vlaminck, though, soon came to abhor all theoretical, anti-naturalist approaches to art, repudiating any aspect of modernism that he believed to stand in the way of an artist painting his genuine, direct experience of the world. ‘This sort of speculative thinking was so utterly alien to me,’ he reflected late in his life. ‘To replace one formula by another—did that amount to nothing more than changing masters?’ (Vlaminck, op. cit., 1961, p. 77).