Fauvism

Meet the “wild beasts” of the early-20th-century art world.

Henri Matisse and André Derain studied with the same teachers, shared friendships with other artists, traveled together, and sometimes worked in the same studio. Both admired and collected African sculptures—especially Matisse, who traveled to North Africa in 1906—and that aesthetic influence can be seen in each painter’s stylized treatment of the human figure, pictorial flatness, and fragmented shapes and planes. To make their paintings, they applied thick brushstrokes of vibrant colors, often unmixed from commercially produced tubes of paint. These colors did not correspond to the way things appeared in real life. “My choice of colors does not rest on any scientific theory,” said Matisse. “It is based on observation, on feeling, on the very nature of each experience.”1

In 1905 Matisse and Derain exhibited together at the Salon d’Automne (Fall Salon)—an alternative to the state-sponsored juried Salon—and their work caused a scandal. Viewers and critics alike were shocked by their use of bright, non-naturalistic colors to render landscapes and portraits. One art critic went so far as to call the artists “fauves” or “wild beasts,”2 and the label stuck. Since then, the term Fauvism has been applied to work by Matisse, Derain, and a small band of early-20th-century painters who used similarly expressive colors, broad strokes, and planes of color.

Fichner-Rathnus, Lois. Understanding Art. (Wadsworth: Cengage Learning: 2012), 477.
Elderfeld, John. Matisse in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1978), 46.

A representation of a particular individual.

The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.

Relating to or characterized by a concern with beauty or good taste (adjective); a particular taste or approach to the visual qualities of an object (noun).

Related Artists: André Derain, Henri Matisse

Questions & Activities

  1. Wild Words

    Research. Explore connections with writers who were active at this time, for example, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Gertrude Stein, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edith Wharton, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Can you see how their work might have influenced the Fauves?

    Compare. Choose a passage from one of these writers to pair with one of these works of art.

  2. Art in America

    Compare the artistic climate in the United States with the period of French Fauvism (1898-1906). Who were some prominent American artists at this time? Compare their work to that of the Fauves.

    Create. Register for an account at MoMA.org (or login if you’ve already registered) and search the collection for works by American artists working between 1898 and 1906. Create and save a collection that compares American work of the time to the work of the Fauves.