This week’s featured artist in the Sunday Painter series, André Derain, the once engineering student turned multi-faceted artist.


French painter, sculptor, illustrator, stage designer and collector. He was a leading exponent of Fauvism. In early 1908 he destroyed most of his work to concentrate on tightly constructed landscape paintings, which were a subtle investigation of the work of Cézanne. After World War I his work became more classical, influenced by the work of such artists as Camille Corot. In his sculpture he drew upon his knowledge and collection of non-Western art.

Derain abandoned his engineering studies in 1898 to become a painter and attended the Académie Carrière. He also sketched in the Musée du Louvre and painted on the banks of the Seine. On a visit to the Louvre in 1899 he met the painter Georges Florentin Linaret (1878–1905), who had been his companion at school, and who was copying Uccello in an extraordinary manner; he was studying under Gustave Moreau and later introduced Derain to a fellow pupil, Henri Matisse. Derain’s painting was already influenced by the work of Cézanne, and in 1901, like many painters of his generation, he was deeply moved by the exhibition of van Gogh’s work at Bernheim-Jeune, Paris. At the exhibition Derain introduced Matisse to Maurice de Vlaminck, with whom he had shared a studio in Chatou in 1900–01. During the following three years’ military service, Derain painted only on his periods of leave. He read widely, notably Friedrich Nietzsche and other modern German philosophers. His letters to Vlaminck in this period reflect his serious intentions as a painter and the beginning of the rich philosophical speculation that was to delight his friends in Montmartre and Montparnasse, and in the early 1920s to inform his treatise on painting.

On leaving the army in September 1904, Derain grew closer to Matisse and Matisse’s interest in Gauguin and Cézanne. The Gauguin exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in 1906 was largely due to the enthusiasm of Matisse and to Gauguin’s friend Georges-Daniel de Monfried. The subsequent influence of Gauguin is most striking in Derain’s wood-carvings, his decorated furniture, the painting Dance (1906; Lausanne, priv. col.), and the wood block prints made for Guillaume Apollinaire’s L’Enchanteur pourrissant (1909). In 1905 Derain sold the contents of his studio to Ambroise Vollard and painted in London and in the south of France with Matisse. Big Ben (1905; Troyes, Mus. A. Mod.) and Collioure, Le Faubourg (1905; Paris, Pompidou) show the loosely divisionist structure of bold blocks of colour that Derain shared with Matisse. Matisse encouraged Derain to enter the Salons. He exhibited in the 1905 Salon des Indépendants and in September Derain exhibited at the Salon d’Automne, at which the critic Louis Vauxcelles described him, Vlaminck, Matisse and others as the fauves (wild beasts), a label that quickly gained currency. The Fauvists were involved with late Symbolist poetics. By 1906 Derain had formed close friendships with Max Jacob, André Salmon and Guillaume Apollinaire, and with Georges Braque they frequented the artistic and poetic society of Montmartre.

In 1907 Derain moved from Chatou to the Rue Tourlaque, and he and Braque became close friends of Picasso. They all shared an interest in Cézanne, a passion for exotic arts, particularly African sculpture, and an interest in the mystic and esoteric studies of their friends. Derain’s Bathers (1907; New York, MOMA), painted around the same time as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (New York, MOMA), is one of his rare surviving works of this period. He continued to sculpt, but direct carving into stone replaced his earlier Gauguin-influenced wood-carving (e.g. Crouching Man, sandstone, 1907; Vienna, Mus. 20. Jhts). The totemic quality of the earlier work survives, however, in the stone sculpture, the inspiration for which was drawn particularly from his sketching trips to the Musée du Louvre, and from the Indian erotic sculpture admired by the Montmartre circle. Derain continued to exhibit at Berthe Weill, and until 1909 at the Salons. In 1907 he had begun to sell to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who was also acquiring the work of Braque and Picasso. By 1910 Kahnweiler was buying Derain’s entire production, and in December 1912 signed him to an exclusive contract. Kahnweiler sold Derain’s work abroad, particularly to Germany and Russia, and in 1913 sent three of his paintings to the Armory Show in the USA. From 1908 to 1910 Derain, Picasso and Braque were inseparable companions. The Old Bridge at Cagnes (1910; Washington, DC, N.G.A.), however, demonstrates their increasingly divergent interests. In this work Derain sought to apply the legacy of Cézanne to a conception of painting based on the work of Poussin and of 16th-century Venetian painters. It was this direct historicism in painting that set Derain apart from the Cubists, with whom he nevertheless maintained friendly contact. In 1911 he concentrated on still-life painting. In place of the fine scaffolding of Cubism, however, his still-lifes increasingly adopted the tenebrism of 17th-century painting. Its vanitas symbolism of chance and fatality was similar to that, based on such motifs as playing cards and written words, in the work of his Cubist friends.

In 1911 and 1912 Derain spent very little time in Paris, instead extending his usual summer painting session from April to December. The Bagpiper (1910–11; Minneapolis, MN, Inst. A.) with its echoes of primitive and early Renaissance painting is closer in spirit to the contemporary poets of the Ecole Romane than to the work of Picasso and Braque. At Vers in 1912 Derain painted several still-lifes with a calvary cross, an overtly religious symbolism that may reflect the eucharistic poetry of Paul Claudel. In 1913 he returned to painting figurative subjects. The Italian sisters who modelled for him are painted with a restraint and poignancy that reveals a tragic anxiety or a pathetic resignation. His Saturday (1914; Moscow, Pushkin Mus. F.A.) summarized many of Derain’s preoccupations of the preceding years. This large-scale composition of figures and still-lifes in an interior takes as its theme the profound and complex liturgy of Holy Saturday, signifying universal death and resurrection. By World War I Derain had confirmed both his metaphysical interests and his devotion to the traditional virtues of figurative painting and its powerful language of gesture, tenebrism and compositional metaphor. He added to this his own self-conscious historicism, which allowed him to call upon a complex of ideas by situating his work in the style of another period. Apollinaire recognized this in his introduction to the catalogue of Derain’s exhibition of 1916 at the Galerie Paul Guillaume. The catalogue includes poems by Pierre Reverdy, Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob and Fernand Divoire.

Upon demobilization, following four years at the Front, Derain found himself celebrated among the dealers in Paris and seriously promoted by the writings of such friends as André Salmon. The portrait of Mme Carco (c. 1920; Basle, Kstmus.), with its reference to the mummy portraiture found at such sites as Faiyum, indicates the persistence of Derain’s pre-war ideas, as do such still-lifes as Kitchen Table (1923–4; Paris, Mus. Orangerie). In this period the work of Corot also became influential on his landscape painting, as seen in Landscape of the Midi (Paris, Mus. Orangerie) and other works painted at Eygalières.

Derain had lived in the Rue Bonaparte in the Latin Quarter from 1912, and he now became an influence upon dozens of young Montparnasse painters and the object of admiration of a new generation of poet critics, including André Breton. During the 1920s Derain attempted to write a treatise on painting, De picturae rerum, which, although unpublished, survives in manuscript. Characteristic of the ideas that attracted young poets and painters to Derain, it is essentially a mystical exposition on painting that assumes a world equally spiritual and material, which proposes that the function of painting is to integrate the two to offer to human understanding a reality that otherwise escapes the senses; light and line are essential to this task, and colour auxiliary or incidental. The large-scale Harlequin and Pierrot (c. 1924; Paris, Mus. Orangerie) surpasses the pre-war work in the poignancy of its expression. The heavy liturgical dance of the apparently silent musicians, strumming stringless instruments alone in a barren landscape, extends the profound sadness on their faces to the whole composition. These pathetic commedia dell’arte figures incline their heads and direct their gaze in the manner of accompanying saints in a Renaissance Lamentation. The simple and controlled range of colour, the arid and merciless light, and the powerful and lucid line exact a clear reading from the spectator and a growing awareness of the fatal significance of the dance.

In 1928 Derain moved to another new studio, which he had built in the Rue Douanier (now Rue Braque). Braque’s studio was in the same building, and they were in close contact during the late 1920s and 1930s. Derain had arrived at an understanding with the dealer Paul Guillaume in 1923, who, until his death in 1934, assured the artist’s comfort and tranquillity. With Guillaume, Derain was in greater contact with Parisian society, and he took a great interest in the performing arts. He had many musician friends and he was close to the composer Georges Auric. Derain’s first ballet design was for Boutique fantasque (1919) for Serge Diaghilev, and he continued to design for the ballet thereafter. Guillaume sold his work widely, notably in the USA, enabling Derain to add to his personal collection of exotic and African treasures, many excellent Greek, Roman and Renaissance sculptures, East Asian art, paintings (including works by Corot), rare books and curios of all kinds.

In the 1930s Derain painted several large-scale nudes and still-lifes, for example The Glade (1.38×2.5 m, 1938; Geneva, Petit Pal.), based on numerous studies in the form of paintings, drawings, lithographs and etchings. A sombre religious sensibility continued to mark his many still-lifes, for example Still-life with Hare (1938; Paris, Pompidou). Classical mythology occupied Derain a great deal throughout the 1930s and 1940s: his notes show a long consideration of Bacchus as a part of the Osiris–Christ myth of the sacrificed and resurrected god. The Golden Age (Paris, Pompidou), a large canvas later used as a design for a tapestry, depicts the defence of the young Bacchus by wild beasts. Narrative is avoided in order to create a universal image as powerful as that in Saturday and Harlequin and Pierrot. In 1935 Derain bought a country home at Chambourcy, and on the eve of World War II he began his last monumental works, among them the Return of Ulysses (Paris, Pompidou), a Last Supper composition, subtly developed into an image of the Homeric banquet. Also shortly before the war, Derain began to create small clay sculptures using earth from his garden at Chambourcy or from his landscape sites. These many coloured clay sculptures, both masks and figures (e.g. Paris, Mus. A. Mod. Ville Paris), were not discovered until after his death, when Pierre Cailler commissioned their bronze-casting. The masterpiece of his wartime period was not a painting but a series of nearly 400 colour woodcuts with which Derain illustrated Skira’s 1943 edition of Rabelais’s Pantagruel. Although Derain had illustrated many books throughout his career, including works by Jacob, Apollinaire, Antonin Artaud, Breton and Vincent Muselli, as well as Petronius and Ovid, this was the largest and most elaborate. Derain had made masks from shells and shrapnel during World War I, and just before his death he began again to build sculptures in sheets of metal; several unfinished works of this type are still in his former studio at Chambourcy.

Jane Lee
From Grove Art Online     

Source: Oxford University Press