After the First World War André Derain’s style dramatically changed. Abandoning the loud Fauvist technique, which preoccupied his work in the early 20th century, Derain now adopted a more classical aesthetic, which reflected his admiration of the Old Masters. He began to work in a more traditional and subdued palette, assuming a more conservative and austere tone. Arlequin tenant une guitar is one of the most striking and beautifully composed examples of this period. Depicting a dashing, young harlequin player, set against a romantic and almost heavenly background of clouds, Derain creates an idealised representation of the player that reflects his classical leanings. In the present work there is a boldness of line and form, which paired with the harmonious use of tone, grants a sense of monumentality and balance to the composition.
In the preface to the Derain Exhibition held at the Paul Guillaume Gallery, Paris, in October 1916, Guillaume Apollinaire chronicled the beginnings of a change in Derain’s style. He stated: ‘After his youthful truculence, Derain has turned towards sobriety and moderation. Derain’s latest imprinted work is with that expressive nobility that can justifiably be called antique. It is derived from the great masters and also from the early French schools particularly that of Avignon…’ (Exh. cat., Derain, London, 1967. p. 6).
This change in Derain’s aesthetic coincides with a widespread revision of antiquity in modern art, with many of the avant-garde artists adopting a more sympathetic approach to their classical past. This transformation in Derain’s art became most noticeable after he visited Paris in 1921. It was about this time that Braque painted a series of monumental female figures that took ancient Greece as their inspiration, while Picasso was painting a series of subjects derived from Antiquity. Denys Sutton, describes the effect that artists, such as Picasso had: ‘The iconography of the Commedia dell’ Arte to which Picasso had turned for his decors for “Parade” in 1919, evidently held a strong appeal for artists at that time’. (D. Sutton, André Derain, London, 1959, p. 40).
Derain painted several Pierrot and Harlequin pictures, the most celebrated of which, Arlequin and Pierrot, painted in 1924, is in the collection Jean Walter-Paul Guillaume, in the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris (inv. RF 1960-41). This apathy for the Commedia dell’Arte and their ‘pierrots and harlequins’ can, in part, be seen as indebted to Derain’s new found interest in the world of ballet and theatre, with the artist designing the set and costumes for Diaghilev’s ballet Le Boutique Fantastique in 1919, to great critical acclaim.
This period marked success for Derain who began to exhibit extensively abroad, showing in cities such as London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf and New York and was awarded the Carnegie Prize in 1928 for his Still-life with Dead Game. The works he painted in this manner, including landscapes, portraits, still lifes, and nudes, made him wealthy, internationally famous and established him as one of the finest painters of the period but they dismayed many supporters of avant-garde art.