“I am in the South,” André Derain wrote to his close friend Maurice de Vlaminck from Martigues during the summer of 1908. “Here I am more pleased than ever—tranquil as all else in this superb country. I have no need of a drum or trumpet. From here the Montmartre crowd seems less choleric” (P. Dagen, ed., Andre Derain: Lettres à Vlaminck, Paris, 1994, no. 75, p. 197).
As a bank of cloud enfolds the Alpilles in the distance, this landscape of low hills and fields in the environs of Martigues basks under a deep blue, crystalline sky. The blazing sunlight has blanched the dry grasses, and fired the parched clay soil to a vivid terracotta hue, in stark contrast with smaller patches of greenery that mark here a cultivated field or there the banks of a stream. Parasol pines, their evergreen branches deep black in the shade, frame the scene, guiding the eye deep into the landscape. It is late summer in the Midi, the timelessly classical landscape of Provence.
After each winter season in Paris, between the Salon d’Automne in one year and the Indépendants the following spring, Derain was eager to get back in touch with the essential elements of his art. “I am going to work seriously, and essentially become a painter again,” Derain continued his letter to Vlaminck. “In short, it is very difficult to make paintings in Paris. One loses any point of contact. And I believe that here is the only place where all one has are the sensations of a painter” (quoted in J. Freeman, The Fauve Landscape, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990, p. 110).
Derain first experienced the southern climes of his country when he spent the summer of 1905 with Matisse in Collioure, a small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast near the Spanish border. This inspired partnership resulted in the emergence of Fauvism, the first transformative thrust of the avant-garde in the young 20th century, which Matisse and Derain revealed to the art world at the 1905 Salon d’Automne in Paris. The salle des Fauves was a sensational, momentous event, and a hard act to follow. Nonetheless, a year later the two painters were already pressing forward and evolving in new directions, working independently, but still in close contact. Matisse returned to Collioure. Derain again journeyed south during the summers of 1906-1908, painting in L’Estaque in 1906, returning there at the end of the year, and in Cassis during 1907. He worked in Martigues, father west along the coast, near the Rhône delta, between May and late November 1908.
“Fauvism was our ordeal by fire,” Derain later reminisced. “Colors became charges of dynamite. They were expected to discharge light. It was a fine idea, in its freshness, that everything could be raised above the real. It was serious, too. With our flat tones, we even preserved a concern for mass, giving for example a spot of sand a heaviness it did not possess, in order to bring out the fluidity of water, the lightness of the sky… The great merit of this method was to free the picture from all imitative and conventional contact.
“What was wrong in our attitude was a kind of fear of imitating life,” Derain continued, “which made us approach things from too far off and led us to hasty judgments…Thus it became necessary for us to return to more cautious attitudes, to lay in a store of resources from the outset, to secure patiently for each painting a long development” (quoted in D. Sutton, André Derain, London, 1959, pp. 20-21).
A key to this “store of resources” became apparent in the art of Paul Cézanne. Derain and Matisse were already familiar with the latter’s work from visits to Ambroise Vollard’s gallery. The decisive impact of Cézanne’s work, largely neglected during his lifetime, began to reach everywhere into the modernist camp following the display of ten of his paintings in the 1906 Salon d’Automne; the master of Aix passed away as the exhibition entered its third week. Galerie Bernheim-Jeune opened a show of 79 Cézanne watercolors in late June 1907, which Derain missed while working in Cassis. The tributes to Cézanne culminated in a full-scale memorial retrospective, comprising nearly 60 paintings, including some of the artist’s especially prescient, revelatory, “unfinished” works, at the Salon d’Automne later that year.
Cézanne had painted for extended periods in L’Estaque during 1876-1879. Derain’s second stay in the town at the end of 1906 may have been his response to having studied the selection of the Cézanne’s work in the recently closed Salon. When Derain returned to the Midi in the summer of 1908, having chosen Martigues as his base, he was certainly flush with enthusiasm from having visited the Cézanne commemorative galleries in the 1907 Salon d’Automne. Derain shared this excitement with Picasso and Braque, the leading figures among the new circle of artist friends to which he had gravitated since the beginning of 1908.
In this Paysage en Provence, Martigues, Derain continued to employ those “flat tones” of Fauve practice. Back in Collioure during the summer of 1905, Derain and Matisse together viewed the Tahitian Gauguin paintings that Daniel de Monfreid had stored for safekeeping in his home nearby. The example of these works led Derain, more quickly than Matisse, to supplant the broken divisionist facture they had been using in their work, derived from Matisse’s interest in the Neo-Impressionist color theory of Signac and Cross, and to deploy instead broader masses of brilliant color in the Gauguinesque manner.
Stacked vertically, flat zones of color serve as the constructive elements in the present Paysage en Provence. Larger forms dominate the foreground, while more compact blocks of color describe receding distance. The arboreal framing of the scene is a Cézannian device, learned from the old masters; Cézanne had declared as his purpose to remake the 17th century classical vision of Poussin according to nature.
Derain’s aim during this period, as he wrote to Vlaminck in March 1906 when discussing the Impressionist art of Monet, was to find “in nature something different—something which is fixed, eternal, and complex” (P. Dagen, ed., op. cit., 1994, no. 63, p. 175). Despite his closeness to Picasso and Braque, Derain never sought a resolution for these concerns in Cubism, and experimented only tangentially with cubist elements in his landscapes during 1910. By the beginning of the First World War Derain instead settled into an idealized naturalism, tinged with naïf elements, which anticipated the classicism that would emerge by the end of the decade and become a significant trend in painting following the end of the war.