"We were always intoxicated with colour, with words that speak of colour, and with the sun that makes colours live." - André Derain
First, it was Pissarro (Impressionism) and van Gogh (Post-Impressionism). Then, German Expressionism and Cubism.
Between these movements came Fauvism. While short lived, it had a remarkable impact. It liberated color from its descriptive role and introduced simplified form and decorative abstraction. In response to the movement’s initial debut in 1905, Louis Vauxcelles responded with both a lengthy review and an insult that inevitably became the movement’s namesake. In his review, Vauxcelles referred to their artworks as fauves (wild beasts).
This week I will share my thought’s on André Derain’s The Turning Road, L’Estaque (1906), a Fauve masterpiece owned by The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The Turning Road, L’Estaque is a monumental landscape painting depicting a scene in a small town in the southern France. The painting vibrates with colors of red, orange, yellow and blue. Tall, loose trees sway in the foreground and background. A long road rounds across the canvas and draws the eye from the right foreground back to the left background. Individuals perform everyday chores. The composition is harmonious and brings together a full range of vibrant colors.
Color is the primary subject in The Turning Road, L’Estaque. Derain used unnatural, vibrant colors of red and blue on tree trunks. Cool greens sit next to warm oranges. A lime green man leads a red horse.
In exchange for dramatic color choices, Derain simplified forms. Figures are gestural and outlined. Gender is hinted by way of curves and clothing. Trees, buildings and roads are also outlined and flatly depicted. Details are ignored and subsumed by the overall feeling and juxtaposition of color.
Derain’s composition is harmoniously constructed and idealizes the south of France’s “simple” lifestyle. Derain creates a composited scene and supplements it with expressive and unnatural colors and forms. Derain thereby treads the line between “naturalism and the decorative in landscape painting”.
By 1900, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism had been explored and exhausted. Fauvism was the result. Delicate works that merely depicted an impression of a scene were no longer ground breaking. As James Herbert writes, “Where daintiness was the disease, crudity was the obvious cure” (Fauve Painting: The Making of Cultural Politics). In 1905, working alongside Henri Matisse and Maurice de Vlaminick, Derain used pure colors straight from the tube and applied paint more freely. The resulting work became Fauvist.
While Derain’s work is remarkably different from Impressionism and Post-Impression, the influence of Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin is evident in The Turning Road, L’Estaque. In fact, the subject, L’Estaque, was one of Cézanne’s favorites. In addition to subject matter, The Turning Road, L’Estaque also shares the empirical formalism that Cézanne had pioneered. Van Gogh’s vigorous application and use of color are apparent in the bold colors and forms Derain uses. Perhaps, most influential, was Gauguin. While van Gogh exaggerated color, Gauguin played with it thoroughly. Gauguin also popularized primitivism, which valued rural and “primitive” living over modern sophistication. Both Derain’s creative use of color and idealization of rural life derive from Gauguin’s work.
It should also be noted that Derain spent much of his time in Paris around this time. Paris was growing at an incredible rate as industrialization and colonization also occurred. Derain’s subject matter and style reflect a yearning for “simpler” times using eye-catching aesthetic choices that caused visceral emotional response.
The Turning Road, L’Estaque is one of Derain’s masterpieces and last Fauve paintings. Derain exhibited The Turning Road, L’Estaque in 1906, one year after Derain and Matisse first introduced Fauvism at the Salon d’Automne. By 1907, following the death of Cézanne, Derain abandoned Fauvism altogether and began mastering Cézanne’s techniques. His palette became muted as his work became for form related.
The Turning Road, L’Estaque served decorative and political functions. It was decorative in its abstraction and idealization of the French countryside. It was political by challenging what had been acceptable during the time of its debut. Prior to Derain’s work, color served a solely descriptive role. By using colors like cadmium red and ultramarine blue right next to one another on a tree trunk, Derain freed color’s role so that it could act as a subject. Derain’s work served a second political role by incorporating primitivism in contrast to modern sophistication.
The Turning Road, L’Estaque is a harmonic, colorful landscape that exemplifies the tenants of Fauvism. Derain successfully created a strong composition that embraced and idealized “simple” living and authentic expression. Furthermore, his work challenged political and aesthetic preferences. The Turning Road, L’Estaque valued “primitivism” in contrast to Europe’s preference for sophistication thanks to technological advances and colonial expansion. In terms of aesthetics, it freed color of its descriptive role.
You can view The Turning Road, L’Estaque at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It is part of the museum’s permanent collection. The Hirsch Library, located inside the museum, is a great place to learn more about The Turning Road, L’Estaque, Fauvism and André Derain.