‘When painting I experienced a source of joy, a constantly renewed pleasure, an intense cerebral excitement… I was in communion with the sky, the trees, the clouds, with life… An unceasingly renewed but fleeting illusion… It was precisely that appearance, continually renewed, always ungraspable, that I worked furiously at capturing, at fixing on the canvas…’ -Maurice de Vlaminck
‘What I was unable to do in society unless by throwing a bomb–which would have led me to the scaffold–I attempted to realise in art, in painting, by employing pure colours straight from the tube’ -Maurice de Vlaminck
Fauvism was the first real revolution in 20th Century art, and the passionate, self-taught Vlaminck—the very wildest of the Fauves, the poet Apollinaire admiringly claimed—was one of its three leaders, together with Derain and Matisse. The paintings that Vlaminck made at the height of the brief but incendiary Fauve moment, from 1905 until 1907, represent the transposition of visual reality into dazzling orchestrations of brilliant colour that capture the sheer vehemence of the artist’s emotion, issuing forth from an untrammelled, expressionist impulse. ‘What I was unable to do in society unless by throwing a bomb—which would have led me to the scaffold—I attempted to realise in art, in painting, by employing pure colours straight from the tube,’ Vlaminck later explained, looking back with nostalgic reverence on the radical fervour of his youth (Vlaminck, quoted in M. Vallès-Bled, Vlaminck: Catalogue critique des peintures et céramiques de la période fauve, Paris, 2008, p. 34).
Vlaminck’s first encounter with one of his future, fellow Fauve insurgents came by chance in June 1900, soon after his 24th birthday, when his train derailed on its way from Paris to his home at suburban Chatou; Derain was on the same train, and the two painters struck up a lively conversation about art while walking home together. Derain’s conservative parents were horrified—Vlaminck was an anarchist, an amateur boxer, and quite the provocateur—but the two painters became fast friends. The next year, at a Van Gogh retrospective at Bernheim- Jeune, Derain introduced Vlaminck to Matisse, age 31 at the time. ‘I saw Derain in the company of an enormous young fellow who proclaimed his enthusiasm in a voice of authority,’ Matisse later recounted. ‘He said, “You see, you’ve got to paint with pure cobalts, pure vermilions, pure veronese.” I think Derain was a bit afraid of him. But he admired him for his enthusiasm and his passion’ (Matisse, quoted in J. Elderfield, The ‘Wild Beasts’: Fauvism and Its Affinities, New York, 1976, p. 30).
From the start, Vlaminck painted fearlessly and without inhibition, glorying in the effect that his violent juxtapositions of colour produced on unsuspecting audiences. He first showed his work at Galerie Berthe Weill in autumn 1904 and at Matisse’s suggestion contributed eight paintings to the Salon des Indépendants in the spring 1905, where Van Gogh was honoured with a major retrospective. That summer, Vlaminck remained at Chatou while Matisse and Derain undertook a transformative journey south to Collioure, where they embraced the utter liberation of colour that Vlaminck—more impetuous by nature—had long espoused. When the three painters displayed their latest work side-by-side at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, it caused an immediate sensation, challenging and even outraging viewers. The critic Louis Vauxcelles dubbed them les fauves (‘the wild beasts’)—either a sobriquet or an epithet, depending on one’s point of view at the time. The new movement now had a name, and Vlaminck was propelled to the forefront of the avant-garde.
Vlaminck painted the present canvas in the midst of this momentous, life-changing year. To find the motif, he set up his easel on the right bank of the Seine at Bezons, a hamlet some six kilometres upstream from Chatou, halfway to Argenteuil. The towpath along the river is visible at the left edge of the painting, and a laundry barge is moored at the right; a line of drying linens cuts obliquely across the foreground, following the plunging course of the river, and the highway bridge that connects Bezons to Petit- Colombes closes off the vista in the middle distance. The luminous whiteness of the washing, rendered in long, heavily loaded strokes, contrasts with the choppier touches of yellow, green, and red that make up the riverbank, pushing these colours to their maximum expressive intensity. The tonal variations of blue in the sky and the Seine, likewise, provide a foil for the fireworks of vivid colour that describe the foreground terrain.
A lifelong resident of the western suburbs of Paris, Vlaminck drew his subject matter almost exclusively from this deeply familiar, local landscape, even after signing a contract with Vollard in 1906 that provided him with ample funds to travel. ‘You cannot come into profound contact with things by spending your vacations in a corner of the countryside’, he insisted. ‘You don’t flirt with nature, you possess it’ (Vlaminck, quoted in J. Herbert, Fauve Painting: The Making of Cultural Politics, New Haven, 1992, p. 53). In the present painting, Vlaminck imposed his incendiary hues on an orderly, topographically specific composition, taking ownership of his native soil by underscoring its scenic legibility. The riverbank opens out in the foreground, providing an effortless point of entry into the scene, while multiple plunging diagonals guide the viewer through the landscape, converging at the left where the bridge joins the bank. The steel arches, in turn, lead the eye rhythmically across the composition, acting as a horizontal anchor that stabilises the image and brings closure to the dynamic recession of the foreground terrain.
Vlaminck was working within an established modern practice by painting in the Seine valley—the so-called ‘cradle of Impressionism’, where Monet, Renoir, and their colleagues had first tested their notions of modern landscape painting more than three decades earlier. Vlaminck’s bold, unmixed streaks of high-keyed colour, though, represent an abrupt break with the delicately worked, vibratory surfaces of charter Impressionism; they suggest at once a spontaneous, subjective response before the motif and a certain unschooled vitality—a fresh, authentic vision outside the evolution of fine art, stripped of conventional signs of the skilled painter’s mediation, conveying instead an immediate, palpable joy in creation. ‘It is as though he was consciously wiping the bloom off the Impressionists’ surface,’ Sarah Whitfield has written, ‘and replacing it with the jumbled mosaic of his own colour’ (S. Whitfield, Fauvism, London, 1991, p. 121).
The Impressionists, moreover, had celebrated the region as a convivial world of social pleasures, whereas Vlaminck’s landscapes are largely unpeopled, conveying a deep-seated emotional and aesthetic attachment to the landscape—a sense of being of the place—comparable to that which pulled Cézanne incessantly back to Mont Sainte-Victoire. ‘When painting I experienced a source of joy, a constantly renewed pleasure, an intense cerebral excitement,’ Vlaminck explained. ‘I was in communion with the sky, the trees, the clouds, with life... It was precisely that appearance, continually renewed, always ungraspable, that I worked furiously at capturing, at fixing on the canvas in greens, yellows, blues, and reds’ (Vlaminck, quoted in M. Vallès-Bled, op. cit., 2008, p. 39).
At the same time, Vlaminck’s paintings reveal a certain ambivalence about the Seine valley, which was then undergoing dramatic change as new bourgeois arrivals from the capital—the nemeses of anarchism—displaced long-time smallholders. In Le Pont de Bezons, the disjunction between the conventionally balanced pictorial structure and the Dionysian fervour of the handling provides a metaphor for this rupture in the social fabric. The artist’s corpulent brushstrokes fill the scene to capacity as though to reclaim the land, urgently countering the encroachments of modernity through the most audaciously modern of artistic means; the intensity of his palette represents a challenge to the bourgeois ideal of nature as tame and tidied up. The painting also contrasts traditional hand labour with the very latest technology: the red posts supporting the clothesline form staccato vertical accents that are continued in the stone piers of the bridge and the slender electric poles, the latter identifiable from contemporary postcards of the site.
Vlaminck continued to paint in an unabashedly Fauve manner until 1907. ‘He is a singular temperament that recalls Van Gogh,’ Vauxcelles declared at the Salon des Indépendants that spring, ‘a virulent image-maker who drives bourgeois spectators to fury and confusion’ (L. Vauxcelles, quoted in J. Herbert, op. cit., 1992, p. 27). The clamour of Fauvism passed soon thereafter, though, in the wake of the revelatory Cézanne retrospective at the 1907 Salon d’Automne. Most avant-garde painters in France fell under the spell of the newly deified master of Aix, whose example encouraged them to adopt an increasingly volumetric approach to form and to forsake the pure tones of Fauvism for a more sombre palette of mixed hues. The expressionist torch now passed most immediately to the German colourists—in particular to the painters of Die Brücke, who had numerous opportunities to see Fauve canvases in Dresden and Berlin from 1908 onward—and subsequently to any number of artists, from Soutine to Baselitz and beyond, whose provocative colour and convulsive handling encode irrepressible paroxysms of emotion.
‘I was a tender barbarian, filled with violence’—so Vlaminck would later write. ‘I did not want to follow a conventional way of painting; I wanted to liberate nature, to free it from the authority of old theories and classicism. I felt a tremendous urge to recreate a new world seen through my own eyes, a world which was entirely mine’ (Vlaminck, Dangerous Corner, New York, 1961, p. 74).