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100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Henri Matisse: Portrait of André Derain 1905

London, Tate Modern

There must have been something in the air. During 1905 Debussy wrote La Mer, Elgar published Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Picasso was producing some of his most memorable ‘rose period’ work and in Switzerland, Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity, which completely revolutionised our understanding of the universe.

During that summer two French artists made their own contribution to this annus mirabilis. Henri Matisse and André Derain were spending the summer in the Mediterranean fishing village of Collioure. They developed a feverish rapport, an empathy based on the use of pure colour. ‘We were at that time like children in the face of nature’ wrote Matisse, ‘we rejected imitative colours… with pure colours we obtained stronger reactions.’

The Tate owns the two portraits they painted of each other during this fertile summer — one of Matisse by Derain and this painting of Derain by Matisse. They illustrate how stylistically close the pair had become during their time in Collioure (somewhat like the relationship between Picasso and Braque a few years later during the development of Cubism — see page 194). Both artists were admirers of Gauguin and took the opportunity to see some of his late Tahitian paintings which were at the home of his executor not far from Collioure. Gauguin’s use of flat areas of anti-naturalistic and purely decorative colour were influential but Matisse and Derain now took things much further.

In this picture Matisse has used paint in broad undiluted swathes, in particular the lighter yellows of Derain’s shirt towards the bottom of the painting seem to have been applied with a near-frenzy which would not look out of place in a painting by van Gogh. The shadow on one side of Derain’s face has been suggested by using various hues of green; the same greens are used for a section of the background, resonating with the red of Derain’s beret. Against the flesh and sunburnt orange tone of the face Matisse has used a complementary blue for the background. Matisse, fresh from his dalliance with Neo-Impressionism, has retained his interest in Seurat’s ideas relating to colour relationships, and the colour juxtapositions in the paintings executed at Collioure are a direct homage to his system.

All this cut little ice with the Parisian public and critics who, confronted at the Salon d’Automne of that year with recent work by Matisse and Derain together with other like-minded artists such as Maurice de Vlaminck, Henri Manguin and Albert Marquet, reacted with outrage and indignation. One critic, Louis Vauxcelles, commenting on the room in which the work of this group was concentrated, and in which an Italianate sculpture by Marquet occupied a central position, thought that the sculpture was like a ‘Donatello parmi les fauves’ (a Donatello among the wild beasts). Just like the insult hurled by Louis Leroy in 1874, which came to define the Impressionists, Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck and their circle came to be known as the Fauves.


Contemporary Works

1905 Gustav KlimtThe Three Ages of Woman, Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

1905 Edvard Munch: Four Girls on a Bridge, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum


Further Paintings of Interest

The Arnolfini Portrait

Jan van Eyck

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait)

Jan van Eyck


Paul Gauguin