Maurice de Vlaminck created Les barques during his Fauve period, 1905-1908, the most celebrated and innovative phase of his career. Vlaminck claimed that he met André Derain in June 1900 after their commuter train from Paris derailed. The two painters decided to share a studio, and in 1901 Derain introduced Vlaminck to Matisse. Vlaminck's first exhibited works were in a group show at the Berthe Weill gallery in Paris in 1904, followed by four paintings at the Salon des Indépendants and eight at the Salon d'Automne, both in 1905. It was during the last exhibition that the critic Louis Vauxcelles sardonically bestowed on him and his fellow painters, including Matisse and Derain, the derisive sobriquet of "Les fauves."
During this extraordinary period, Vlaminck remained mostly in and around Chatou--a northwest suburb of Paris on the banks of the Seine. Chatou was then a summer retreat and playground for visitors from the capital, and the haute bourgeoisie enjoyed sailing and canoeing along the wooded banks if the Ile-de-Chatou. The most modern structure in the town was its picturesque railway bridge, and the only local industry was a hand laundry housed in barges along the river. In Les barques, these barges line the shore in the background while the sailboats dominate the water. Both Derain and Vlaminck were natives of the area and were fascinated by their home region, but Vlaminck had a particular affinity for it, saying, "I have no wish for a change of scene. All these places that I know so well, the Seine with its string of barges, the tugs with their plumes of smoke, the taverns in the suburbs, the colors of the atmosphere, the sky with its great clouds and its patches of sun, these were what I wanted to paint" (quoted in Fauves, exh. cat., The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia, 1995, p. 220). He seems to have held an equally strong antipathy to Paris: "I have never considered Paris as anything other than a permanent show, a fair, a place for pleasure, but also will possibilities for boredom and sorrow. Paris has always exasperated me" (quoted in The Fauve Landscape, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991, p. 134).
Vlaminck was very faithful to certain motifs and viewpoints. His favorite was the Pont de Chatou, a bridge that he painted from all angles and in all seasons. For instance, in Le pont de Chatou of 1907 (fig. 1), his point of view was from the island, just upriver from the bridge. Les barques shows another part of the river near Chatou, and perhaps the bridge is slightly off canvas. Chatou's banks, unlike those of Argenteuil and Le Pecq, were not marked by the industrial revolution; tugboats passed, but did not stop. In both Le pont de Chatou and Les barques, sailboats are prominent, emphasizing leisure and relaxation, and are reminiscent of Impressionist painting.
In fact, Impressionists such as Monet, Renoir, and Sisley had also worked near Chatou, and the younger Fauve artists were well aware of the area's artistic legacy. While the Fauves lacked any clear theoretical and doctrinaire program, they did hold competitive feelings toward Impressionism and were united in their shared distaste for the late manifestations of this now prevalent style and for academic painting. Matisse, for instance, wrote in his Notes d'un peintre in 1908: "The word Impressionism perfectly characterizes their style, for they register fleeting impressions. It is not an appropriate designation for certain more recent painters who avoid the first impression, and consider it dishonest. A rapid rendering of a landscape represents only one moment of its existence [durée]. I prefer, by insisting upon its essential character, to risk losing charm in order to obtain greater stability" (quoted in J. Flam, ed. Matisse on Art, 1995, p. 39). Regardless, the Fauves clearly used the same subject matter as the Impressionists. Les barques, for instance, recalls Renoir's Les Rameurs à Chatou, 1879, (fig. 2). They depict the same stretch of water and shore, although in Renoir's work the emphasis on bourgeois leisure is even stronger, as the oarsmen prepare their boats and a young, fashionable woman looks on.
By contrast, the Post-Impressionists were a strong influence on the Fauves, in their compositions, brushstroke, and non-naturalistic color. While Derain and Matisse were strongly affected by Gauguin, Vlaminck was more inspired by van Gogh. The latter's influence is particularly seen in Vlaminck's heavy impasto and often quick, broken brushstrokes. After seeing a van Gogh exhibition in 1901 at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, Vlaminck wrote, "In him I found some of my own aspirations. Probably from similar Nordic affinities? And, as well as a revolutionary fervor an almost religious feeling for the interpretation of nature. I came out of this retrospective exhibition shaken to the core" (quoted in J.D. Herbert, Fauve painting: the making of cultural politics. New Haven, 1992, p. 28). Contemporary critics described van Gogh's work as "brut, rude, fruste, gauche, maladroit, naïf, violent, grossier, and rustique" (ibid.). Such qualities appealed to Vlaminck, who prided himself on being virtually self-taught.
Although Matisse was the guiding light of the Fauve movement, Vlaminck's work is quite different from his. The brushstrokes of Vlaminck's works appear more fluid, forming a continuous surface, which is clearly seen in Les barques and to a lesser degree in Le pont de Chatou (fig. 1). However, these differences did not stop Matisse from admiring the other artist; after meeting Vlaminck in 1901 and viewing his work, he wrote, ""I was not able to sleep that night" (quoted in Fauves, exh. cat., The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia, 1995, p. 230). Van Gogh too depicted sailboats, such as in his Bateaux de pêche en mer, 1888 (fig. 3). In comparing this work and Vlaminck's Les barques, the similar treatment of color and shade, as well as form, is clear.
It is actually more significant to note the influence of Cézanne in Les barques. Cézanne died in 1906, and in the autumn of 1907, there was a retrospective of his works at the Salon d'Autumne, and Mercure de France published his correspondence with Emile Bernard, which served as a statement of Cézanne's ideas about composition, form, and color. As Judi Freeman has written, "The winding down of the Fauve period clearly relates to an increased interest in Cézanne by many of the Fauves" (in The Fauve Landscape, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990, p. 44). André Derain's painting, Bathers, 1908, is frequently cited as being evidence of Cézanne's suddenly pervasive influence (Narodni Galerie, Prague). Vlaminck too was experimenting with "Cézannisme" in 1907. For instance, there are subtle differences in style between Le pont de Chatou (fig. 1) and Les barques. The brushstrokes of Les barques are primarily vertical and the articulation of depth and volume relies less on clear perspective than on color and texture, highly reminiscent of Cézanne's paintings of Le Mont Sainte-Victoire and his "ordered sensations." The idea of building solidity and form through planar construction was articulated by Cézanne in a letter to Bernard in 1905: "the planes fall one on top of the other, from whence neo-impressionism emerged, which circumscribes the contours with a black line, a fault which must be fought at all costs" (quoted in J. Rewald, ed., Paul Cézanne Letters, New York, 1995, p. 317). In addition, the more naturalistic use of blues, greens, and ochres seen in 1907, which came to characterize Vlaminck's work for the next few years, recalls Cézanne's palette. Les barques thus occupies a momentary, even pivotal position in Vlaminck's work. It looks back to Van Gogh but forward to Cézanne as well, while it also represents the culmination of Vlaminck's uniquely personal contribution to Fauve painting. Les barques is among the most splendidly realized of Vlaminck's paintings during this important phase. Indeed, when it was sold at auction at Christie's London in 1981, it realized what was then a record price at auction for a painting by the artist.
(fig. 1) Maurice de Vlaminck, Le pont de Chatou, 1907. Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kultuurbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 20625320
(fig. 2) Auguste Renoir, Les Rameurs à Chatou, 1879. National Gallery, Washington, D.C. BARCODE 20625399
(fig. 3) Vincent Van Gogh, Bateaux de pêche en mer, 1888. Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam. BARCODE 25240214