Three artists with an inestimable importance to twentieth century avant-gardes crossed paths at the 1906 Salon des Indépendants in Paris. Two young painters--Robert Delaunay and Jean Metzinger (fig. 1)--met and quickly became acquainted with each other, and also became friendly with the much older customs agent and Sunday painter Henri Rousseau (known as "le Douanier"). Delaunay deeply admired Rousseau's untrained, non-academic style. Although Delaunay had been apprenticed to the Ronsin stage-painting studios in Paris until 1904, he was essentially a self-taught painter. Throughout his career Delaunay would emulate Rousseau's populism, if not his particular style of painting. In 1911, after le Douanier's death, Delaunay wrote, "Of all this painting, which has its direct root in the fertile ideas of the people, Rousseau was the genius, the precious flower" (quoted in R. Cottington, Cubism in the Shadow of War, New Haven, 1998, p. 179). Similarly, shared interests motivated the friendship between Delaunay and Metzinger. Both artists were fascinated by the color theories of Chevreul, Rood and Henri, which had already influenced Turner, Delacroix, Renoir, Seurat, Pissarro, and Cézanne.
The 1906 Salon d'Automne had marked the debut of "Fauvism." Alongside works by Derain and Vlaminck in Salle VII, Matisse showed his shocking Femme au chapeau (fig. 2). Public reaction galvanized these artists, who became known as les fauves ("the wild beasts"), and encouraged them to forge a short-lived but influential alliance. Earlier that year, at the 21st Salon des Artistes Indépendants, there was a retrospective of forty-five major paintings and works on paper by Vincent van Gogh, as well as a similarly sized tribute to Georges Seurat. Metzinger and Delaunay saw and were clearly influenced by these exhibitions. The fauves had suggested to the pair of young painters the freedom of a new chromatically-driven and anti-naturalistic pictorialism, which, as they now well understood, was rooted in the color theories that Seurat had advocated, and could be expressed in the energetic handling of van Gogh.
The summer of 1906, under the influence of his new friend Metzinger, Delaunay began to develop his own use of Neo-Impressionist fragmented brushstroke and divisionist color. Delaunay and Metzinger also began work on a series of portraits of one another. The traditional academic practice of painters portraying each other had fallen out of fashion. During this time, however, the Fauves Derain, Matisse and Vlaminck painted each other, giving new life to the practice, and inspiring the younger painters as well. Although many of the portraits Metzinger and Delaunay painted that year have since been lost, the present picture of a dandified young Metzinger spectacularly captures this heady period of daring artistic experimentation that these two friends had now embarked upon.
Delaunay's contributions to the 1906 Salon d'Automne revealed not only the influence of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionist painters like Seurat, Signac and Cross, but also the significance to the young Delaunay of Matisse's Femme au chapeau, as well as the latter's overtly Neo-impressionist landscape, Luxe, calme et volupté, which had been shown at the Salon des Indépendants in the spring of 1905. Delaunay chose to contribute a portrait of Henri Carlier (Musé National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) and the present painting, L'homme à la tulipe. Like Delaunay, Metzinger decided to exhibit only two paintings; one was a landscape entitled Les Flamandes, and the other was his celebrated portrait of Delaunay (fig. 3). The striking similarity between the two portraits suggests that the artists consciously styled them as pendants.
While the present painting should be located within a modernist trajectory from Neo-Impressionism to Fauvism, the power and dynamism inherent in this portrait belong to Delaunay alone. Apollinaire would later write of Delaunay, "He sums up, without any scientific pomp, the entire effort of modern painting." Here, the painter's use of a skewed, almost aerial perspective intentionally unbalances the composition. The flat patterning of the wallpaper contrasts with the perspectival specificity of the Japanese print. The female figure seems to gaze down on Metzinger's head, as if looking in from an outside window. Indeed, the presence of the ukiyo-e woodcut is a homage to the ongoing influence of japonisme on French modernism. Delaunay's faceting of volume in his sitter's face is startling; he renders the light effects, depth, and contours of Metzinger's face through individual patches of contrasting and denaturalized color. Considering the artists' youth at the time--Metzinger was twenty-two, and Delaunay was just twenty--their decision to depict each other for the highly public Salon underlines the artists' growing sense of self-awareness and confidence. It also illustrates how closely they felt themselves to be working toward the resolution of similar formal concerns.
Significantly, the Salon d'Automne of 1906 also included a retrospective of Gauguin, who had died three years earlier in the Marquesas Islands. Delaunay's work, alongside that of Metzinger and Matisse, would soon display the impact of Gauguin's painting, specifically in terms of the areas of flatly applied anti-naturalist color with which he created his compositions. The artists were quickly liberating themselves from the lingering influence of color-divisionism and Neo-Impressionism. In Delaunay's case, the artist's investigations into the properties of color would eventually lead him to fully abstract, non-representational painting.
Metzinger and Delaunay's sense of their own historical position, and indeed of their friendship's significance to the development of modern art, would soon be justified. Around 1912 Delaunay and Metzinger, together with Albert Gleizes, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Villon, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, formed the core of what came to be called the Puteaux Cubists. Named after the suburban Paris neighborhood where the Duchamp brothers lived, Puteaux was the site of spirited Sunday salons and debates. There, an eclectic group of artists discussed the relevance for painting of simultaneity, and challenged the divide between space and time. The influence of early 'simultaneous' canvases by Léger and Delaunay contributed to the development of Futurism. The Puteaux group analyzed the laws of color division and contrast. They discussed Kant and Nietzsche, and Henri Bergson's arguments for artistic evolution. They shared a mathematical bent as well; they studied theories of non-Euclidian geometries and postulated the existence of a the fourth "time-space" dimension in art.
These discussions had a vast significance for the development of modern art in the twentieth century. Marcel Duchamp absorbed theories on the fourth dimension in Puteaux at an early age and continued exploring them throughout his career. In another form, the debates developed into the first theory of Cubism. Published by Gleizes and Metzinger in 1912 as Du Cubisme, the book articulated the aims of the Puteaux Cubists and introduced Cubism itself to the wider public. In it, the artists sought to relate their experiments to French tradition and to a definition of painting as reducible to basic laws. In this they distanced themselves from what they considered to be the obscurity of other Cubists, including the great pioneers Picasso and Braque.
L'homme à la tulipe shows Delaunay already preoccupied with many of the issues of color and light that he would explore in his celebrated series of 1909: the Saint Severin, and the Tour Eiffel. Delaunay's interest in light and color reached a high point as he began his highly influential Fenêtres series in 1912. These paintings focused on harmonious contrasts, and delineated form through pure color rather than line or volume. Delaunay's own 1912 philosophy of painting would be published in Der Sturm in a translation by Paul Klee as 'Über das Licht,' 1913. The fact that Der Sturm was the first to publish his theories attests to Delaunay's profound influence outside of France. Indeed, Delaunay had been the single most significant link between the French and German avant-gardes before the war, and his paintings as well as his philosophies deeply affected Franz Marc, Auguste Macke, and Wassily Kandinsky. Delaunay wrote, "Color alone is form and subject," and referred to the way colors could be made to 'vibrate' by being place alongside contrasting tones. These were the very dynamic juxtapositions which bring the painter's masterful early portrait of Metzinger to life.
(fig. 1) Photograph of Jean Metzinger. BARCODE 25239850
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Femme au chapeau, 1905. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco. BARCODE 25239843
(fig. 3) Jean Metzinger, Portrait de Robert Delaunay, 1906. BARCODE 25239836