‘The sites that are so familiar to Londoners appear clad in a fabulous polychromatic garb that transforms them into a mirage of coloured paint’
(J. House, ‘The Thames Transfigured: André Derain’s London’, in André Derain: The London Paintings, exh. cat., London, 2005-2006, p. 48)
‘The Thames is huge and it’s the opposite of Marseilles; that’s telling you everything’
(Derain in a letter to Vlaminck, 7 March 1906, in André Derain: The London Paintings, exh. cat., London, 2005-2006, p. 133)
Londres: la Tamise au pont de Westminster is one of a magnificent, explosive and seminal series of works that André Derain painted over the course of three stays in London, in 1906 and 1907. Ranking among some of the greatest works of early modernism, these cityscapes form the second phase of the artist’s radical Fauvist period, presenting not only the radical liberation of colour that this short-lived but intense artistic movement had propagated, but the increasing move away from an allegiance to mimesis towards a new autonomous form of artistic expression. One of a total of twenty-nine recorded London paintings, this work takes one of the artist’s favourite and most frequently painted views as its subject: captured from the Albert Embankment, it depicts the very heart of the city, the wide waters of the Thames, the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Bridge and, in the background, the splendidly rising pyramidal silhouette of Whitehall Court. As with all of the works in this series, in Londres: la Tamise au pont de Westminster the British capital is saturated in radiant, daringly radical colour, such as it has never been seen in art before. Here, the expansive grey waters of the Thames are transformed into a mosaic of shimmering yellow, opalescent blue and turquoise; the sunlit sky rendered in an iridescent patchwork of delicate blues and pinks. Even the lamppost transcends its ubiquity to become a dazzling cobalt blue totem ascending skyward, dwarfing the two pedestrians who stand below.
Just a few months before he ventured to London, Derain had made his explosive debut into the Parisian art world when he was included in the scandalous, now legendary Salon d’Automne of 1905. Having worked alongside Matisse in Collioure during that summer, Derain returned to Paris with some of the most incendiary paintings that the Twentieth Century had yet seen; radically executed landscapes in which the pale ground of the canvas jostled alongside broad, unmixed strokes of bold, unnaturalistic colour. Together, the work of Matisse, Vlaminck and Derain, among others, induced the incensed critic Louis Vauxcelles to name this group of artists ‘les Fauves’ or ‘Wild Beasts’, the moniker that would come to define the style and technique of this brief movement. Derain’s work at the Salon caught the eye of one of Paris’ leading contemporary art dealers, the man who had, a few months earlier, introduced the artist to Matisse: Ambroise Vollard. In November, just a few days before the Salon closed, Vollard bought the entirety of Derain’s studio, and, in a move that would shape the course of Derain’s early career, became his dealer.
It was Vollard’s idea to send Derain to London and commission him to paint a series of cityscapes there. Following in the example of Claude Monet, whose series of Thames paintings had been met with rapturous praise when they were exhibited at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in June 1904 (coincidentally, Derain had visited and been entranced by this exhibition whilst on leave from his military service), and again at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in the spring of 1906, Vollard sought to capitalise on the success of the popularity of these works. Derain later recalled the circumstances of his London commission: ‘After a visit to London, [Vollard] was very enthusiastic about the city and wanted some paintings inspired by its atmosphere. He sent me there because he wanted to renew the expression that Claude Monet has tackled so successfully, and which he made such a powerful impression in Paris a few years earlier’ (Derain to Ronald Alley, in J. House, ‘The Thames Transfigured: André Derain’s London’, in André Derain: The London Paintings, exh. cat., London, 2005-2006, p. 31).
The twenty-five-year-old artist arrived in London in March 1906. There has been much debate over the exact timings of the sojourns Derain made in the capital. As Rémi Labrusse and Jacqueline Munck explain in their article, ‘André Derain in London (1907-07): letters and a sketchbook’ (The Burlington Magazine, vol. 146, no. 1213, April 2004, pp. 243-260), before the discovery in 1999 of letters from Derain to Matisse, it was thought that Derain travelled to London in 1905 and again in 1906. With the study of this correspondence however, it became possible to deduce that Derain made his first trip at the beginning of March 1906. Returning to Paris after just ten days so that he could help Matisse hang his one-man show at the Galerie Druet and visit the Salon des Indépendants, he returned again in late March until the middle of April, and, after a summer spent in L’Estaque, he crossed the Channel for a final time to complete his British painting campaign, in January 1907. Of the series of 29 works from London, only one, Westminster (Musée de Saint-Tropez) can be decisively dated to 1906 due to its inclusion in the Salon d’Automne later this year. The rest of this group, including Londres: la Tamise au pont de Westminster, date from either 1906 or 1907. The artist presented this group of works to Vollard in the summer of 1907 shortly before he left the dealer and joined the cubist supporter Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Never exhibited as a group, the majority of these London paintings remained in Vollard’s collection for the rest of his life.
With the esteemed example of Monet set firmly in his mind, over the course of his time in London, Derain travelled across the city in search of his subjects, sketching an array of different views. Very quickly however, his portrayal of the city diverged from his predecessor. Unlike Monet, whose depictions of the city had centred around three specific viewpoints – the Thames and Waterloo bridge depicted from the Savoy Hotel; looking south over Charing Cross Bridge to the Palace of Westminster; and the view west from St Thomas’s Hospital towards Westminster – Derain was not fixed to one specific viewpoint. Instead he captured the city from a range of positions, never returning to an identical subject twice in an attempt to challenge himself afresh with each work. More than this however, the notorious London fogs for which the city had become best known, and under whose spell Monet had well and truly fallen, proved strangely elusive for Derain. ‘Dismayingly, London has been drenched in sunlight for a fortnight, turning it into another Marseilles’, he wrote to Vollard during his second stay. ‘I am totally deprived of fog’ (Derain, quoted in R. Lambrusse & J. Munch, ‘André Derain in London (1906-1907)’, in ibid., p. 27).
As a result, Derain pursued, whether out of necessity or by choice, not the same muted, soft effects of light and colour that this atmospheric condition cast over the appearance of the city, but rather focused on more radical formal experimentation. He explained, ‘Where Monet is concerned, I adore him despite everything, precisely because of his error, which offers me a precious lesson. Isn’t he right, in the end with his fugitive and non-lasting colour, to render the natural impression which is only an impression and which does not last…? As for me, I am seeking something else: what is there in nature, on the contrary, that is fixed, eternal, complex’ (Derain, in a letter to Vlaminck, variously dated as June 1904 or March 1906, in J. House, op. cit., p. 31).
Londres: la Tamise au pont de Westminster embodies this radically different approach that Derain took in his portrayal of London. Like Monet, here Derain centres his composition around the revered, monumental and magisterial icon of the Palace of Westminster. From here however, the two artists radically diverge. One of six others that takes this symbol of power, patriotism and politics as its subject, Londres: la Tamise au pont de Westminster is a view that appears bathed in radiant daylight. Rather than dissolving into a gentle, enveloping haze of mist, the luminous blue silhouettes of the soaring tower of Big Ben, looming mass of Whitehall and the rest of the simplified, cubic buildings along the far bank of the river remain clear, solid and monumental against the bright sky. Perhaps more importantly however, the softly hued mirage of sky, water and silhouettes are all set against the forceful angular line of the Albert Embankment in the immediate foreground of the painting. Two figures, perhaps tourists, meander along the this stretch of pavement, one perhaps reading a newspaper, their presence lending this scene an unequivocal sense of modernity – a frequent characteristic of Derain’s London works. This soaring, dynamic diagonal also seems to skew the overall perspective of this painting, making clear that Derain has heavily cropped the view he would have seen from this position, excluding the main body of the Parliament buildings to leave only Big Ben and the expansive, arched bridge itself.
With Londres: la Tamise au pont de Westminster, Derain has moved away from the Divisionist application of colour that characterises two very similar views, Westminster and Big Ben, Londres, 1906-07 (Musée d’art moderne, Troyes). At this time, Derain was immersed in the formal power of colour, exploring how he could give this formal attribute a meaning beyond its descriptive value; experimentations he had developed the previous summer with Matisse in Collioure. The present work demonstrates this concurrent experimentation. Rather than applying colour with small dots of complementary pairings of colour, he has developed this to instead use wide, slab-like brushstrokes that evoke a sense of flatness and solidity, a far cry from the decorative mosaic surfaces of the aforementioned works. In a technique that has been likened to Cézanne’s constructive brushstrokes, Derain has painted the sky in patches of soft blue hues. Unlike Monet’s views of London, which become vaporous mirages of colour that transcend specificities of place and time, Derain, with his bold tones of green, blue and pink, intensified by the deep Prussian blue of the foreground, conveys in Londres: la Tamise au pont de Westminster a greater sense of clarity and an experimental more radical structure, harnessing an element of the real, solid and tangible in his vision of the city.
Arriving in London with these strongly felt desires to take colour, and indeed painting, beyond traditional conventions, Derain’s radical ideas took flight upon visiting the capital’s collections of non-Western art. Visiting the ethnographic and ancient collections of the British Museum, he was immediately inspired to ‘make of the Thames something other than coloured photographs’, as he wrote to Matisse on 15 March 1906 (Derain, in J. House, ibid., p. 31). Absorbing the non-representational, stylized or heavily abstract means of conveying the world that these objects presented, Derain realised that he too wanted to go beyond mere mimesis in his painting to instead create autonomous expressions that escaped the bounds of realism to embrace a more direct, primal and unrestrained vision of the world.
In this way, works such as Londres: la Tamise au pont de Westminster serve as vivid testaments to the artist’s ever-expanding vision for the possibilities of art. Immersed in the capital, its national collections, and most importantly, removed from the jostling avant-garde hub of Paris, Derain was able to process the radical breakthroughs he had already made, as well as the influences he had acquired, to forge an artistic idiom that was wholly unique. Moving beyond the constructive facture of Cézanne, the heady exoticism of Gauguin, and the sensory evocations of Monet, in London, Derain created a brand new, experimental form of landscape painting; one that, as the present work shows, was no longer dependent entirely on the motif, but sizzled with autonomous colour and paint handling. The embodiment of the ambitious, radical and iconoclastic spirit of the avant-garde, these works take their place within the haloed lineage of Turner, Whistler and Monet, pointing the way to the radical developments that gained pace as the Twentieth Century drew onwards.