In the summer of 1904 a series of canvases by Claude Monet, depicting various views of London, were exhibited at the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris. Unlike Monet’s view of the Palace of Westminster shrouded in mist painted some 30 years earlier (the then infamous Impression; Sunrise), this new London series was rapturously received. Times had changed. Among those who were impressed by the exhibition was the young painter André Derain who was on leave that summer from military service. Derain wrote of Monet ‘I adore him … even his mistakes teach me valuable lessons.’ Another admirer of Monet’s London series was the art dealer and rival to Durand-Ruel, Ambroise Vollard who, since his arrival in Paris in 1887 from his remote and romantic birthplace, the Île de la Réunion in the Indian Ocean, had become the most important dealer for new art. He had taken Cézanne and Picasso under his wing and was about to do the same for a new group of painters including Derain.
In 1905 Derain spent the summer painting in the small Mediterranean fishing village of Collioure near the Spanish border with his friend Henri Matisse. Here the two artists developed a new visual language based around colour; Matisse wrote that ‘we rejected imitative colours … with pure colours we obtained stronger reactions.’
The results of this collaborative effort together with paintings by like-minded artists such as Maurice de Vlaminck and Albert Marquet were displayed in their own room at the 1905 Salon d’Automne. They were greeted with outrage and disbelief. One critic, Louis Vauxcelles thought that an Italianate sculpture by Marquet which had been placed in the middle of the room was like a ‘Donatello parmi les fauves’ (a Donatello among the wild beasts). In a direct parallel with the insult aimed by Louis Leroy at Impression; Sunrise in 1874, the name stuck and Matisse, Derain and company became known as the ‘Fauves.’
A month or two later Vollard, whose prescience at spotting the ‘coming thing’ was legendary, descended on Derain’s studio, bought his entire stock of nearly 90 paintings, and gained the artist’s signature on an agreement for future representation. The following year, in a direct response to Monet’s London series, Vollard commissioned this new addition to his ‘stable’ to paint 50 views of the British capital – a somewhat ambitious target. Derain, who eventually completed 30 canvases, visited the city three times between the spring of 1906 and early 1907. He chose similar views to Monet, painting some in situ from similar vantage points, but most were painted back in France, using the contents of a number of sketchbooks as the basis for his compositions.
We can see in this work that Derain is using the colour theories expounded by Georges Seurat, Paul Signac and the Neo-Impressionist masters who had for a time deeply influenced Matisse. The dark blue and blue-green of the Houses of Parliament and the night sky are balanced and complemented by divisionist strokes of dark yellow and light orange in the foreground water and two dark vermillion highlights splashed on two barges. The green and light blue of the water in the middle ground forms a buffer between these dominant fields of colour.
1906 Gustave Klimt: Fritza Reidler, Vienna, Belvedere
1906 Pablo Picasso: Gertrude Stein, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1906 Henri Rousseau: The Merry Jesters, Philadelphia, Museum of Art