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Important Art by André Derain
Houses of Parliament represents a Neo-Impressionist panoramic view of the Thames River in London. Derain was sent to London by his art dealer Vollard to paint a series of London landscapes meant to rival Monet's. Derain wrote that he had difficulty with the subject, "it was absurd to paint the blazing sun in the world capital of fog," yet he took advantage of this opportunity to "explore the notion of color as an independent entity and paint a landscape which no longer represents anything."
In this work Derain experimented with Divisionism, applying thick, similarly-shaped dabs of paint to the canvas in a methodical, even fashion. The canvas is neatly divided into an upper and lower section. The upper section, devoted to the buildings and sky, is painted with vertically-oriented brushstrokes, while the bottom section, describing the water and the boat, is painted with horizontal ones. The artist uses a very bold color palette reminiscent of Impressionist works throughout. The mosaic of strokes noted in the sky are reflected beneath in the water, creating an overall harmonious balance across the entire surface of the canvas.
This painting represents a turning point in Derain's early art as he began to adopt a colorful palette that would enable him to capture his experience of the landscape. While not as bold as his later Fauvist efforts, Houses of Parliament represents the early revolution of color in his work.
This painting, depicting a popular location painted by many other contemporary artists, including Cézanne and Braque, illustrates the way he was influenced by his immediate artistic forebears and in which ways he began to develop a new direction. Although the interest in the L'Estaque coastline of Southern France was shared by many, Derain's version diverges. It is not a pure landscape and instead, includes the depiction of figures. Imagery of figures within nature recalls the pastoral and Arcadian themes noted in Symbolist paintings. This 'paysage decoratif,' as best described by Roger Benjamin, was "a modernist addition to the traditional academic division between the historic landscape (with figures in heroic action) and the rural landscape (with its more intimate country setting)." It evoked the idea of "decorative deformation" for which the Symbolists were known, evoking "essential truths" in the search for a "timeless art."
There is no question that early Fauve works, such as this one by Derain, were influenced by Gauguin. In fact, the same kind of decorative treatment of the landscape details is noted in Gauguin's earlier work in Pont Aven from 1889. In his image at L'Estaque Derain used flat areas of color, typical of the Fauvist style, abstaining from any traditional manner of denoting shadow. The group considered the juxtaposition of complementary colors an adequate method by which to capture the difference between light and shade. The artist no longer uses the style of Divisionism noted in his London landscapes and instead, allows the painted sections to bleed, one into the other, thereby creating a sensation of volume and depth right on the flat canvas. The simplified description of both landscape elements and the figures themselves, gives them an abstract appearance that emphasizes the overall decorative nature of the work.
This painting, with its bold, vibrant colors and simplification of form, is one of the first examples of Fauvism and served as a precursor to works by Kandinsky and other Expressionists.
The Dance, representing an Arcadian landscape with dancing figures, is rooted in the classical primitive tradition. It evokes an amalgamation of traditions including Folk, African, and Romanesque art. Derain began work on this painting after seeing a Gauguin retrospective. The influence of Gauguin's primitive oeuvre is seen plainly in the use of bold, flat colors, stylized elements (like the snake and the leaves), the choice to focus on an exotic landscape and the specific inclusion of a seated figure in the background almost identical to the one painted by Gauguin. Despite this, art historian John Elderfield discounts Gauguin's influence and believes that "in spite of these exotic sources, Derain was still looking to the Louvre for inspiration." He believes, instead, that "The right hand figure is modeled after the black servant in Delacroix's Women of Algiers (1834)." There is no question that Derain's emphasis on the wild nature of the nude female figure also suggests his interest in earlier Romantic artists.
The artist purposefully removes his image from the recognizable world. The figures arms and legs are distorted and elongated. The artist emphasizes the rhythmic and sinuous lines of the overall anatomy in order to create a decorative pattern across the canvas. He uses unnatural colors to express primal emotions. Matisse's iconic Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life) (1905-06) exhibits interest in similar settings and took the stylistic idiom one step further, presenting an even more stripped down, and purer, version.
The facial features, no doubt influenced by that African fang mask he owned, are equally unnatural and exaggerated. The figures dance before us in an uninhibited manner, in perfect ease to their surroundings. It's possible that Derain here develops the theme of fertility germane to Arcadia themes. The interest in non-Western sources of inspiration shown here was seen even earlier in the work of Gauguin, who famously traveled to the South Seas to find a purer expression of life in nature. And a bit later Henri Rousseau would also seek to find an alternative, non-Western basis for his depictions of man in nature.