Gateway to Modernism: Exploring Matisse and Derain’s Paintings of Collioure

by Jacky Cortiaus May 20, 2024

In the history of art, periods of a certain style generally last for years, or even decades. However, one movement, Fauvism, ripped through only a few years at the beginning of the twentieth century and has not been easily forgotten. Over a century later, Fauvism still overwhelms viewers with its radiant colors, as seen in Vertigo of Color: Matisse, Derain, and the Origins of Fauvism at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). This exhibition, co-organized by the MFAH and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, focuses on two central Fauve artists, Henri Matisse and André Derain, and contextualizes their work as the first brushstrokes of the movement. With paintings and drawings brought together from all over the world, the show connects themes of unnaturalistic color, textured brushstrokes, and everyday subjects across the two artists’ work.

A painting of the sea as seen from inside a house looking out through open doors.

Henri Matisse, “Open Window, Collioure,” 1905, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, collection of Mr. and Mrs. John, Hay Whitney © 2023 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

For this exhibit, historical context is essential. In the summer of 1905, Matisse and Derain met in Collioure, a small but busy fishing port in the South of France, to paint. While they each left with a dazzling collection inspired by the beautiful surroundings of Collioure, these paintings also showcased their daring new use of unnaturalistic color; in them, they break away from using colors that only represented reality. Later that fall, they presented a few of their paintings from this time at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. Critics and the public were scandalized and lost for words to describe these colorful works, although one critic bestowed the term “les fauves,” meaning the “wild beasts,” and the name stuck.

Three fauvist paintings hang on the wall of a museum.

“Vertigo of Color, Matisse, Derain, and the Origins of Fauvism,” installation view at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston

Not unlike the modern influencer, infiltrating a picturesque location in order to collect a series of photos to then carefully curate into a “photo dump” on social media, Matisse and Derain’s expedition to Collioure was similarly a time of seeking out paintings and drawings to then share for viewers in Paris. The exhibition is divided into four galleries: works by Derain, works by Matisse, the reverberations of that summer in Collioure, and finally Amélie Matisse’s role as a model. An enlarged black and white photograph covering one of the walls of the first gallery offers evidence of what the actual fishing port in Collioure looked like: rows of boats along the water, as echoed in Derain’s Fishing Boats, Collioure and Matisse’s iconic Open Window, Collioure. Another small photograph in the first gallery points out Matisse and Derain mingling amongst some local fishers, a tangible artifact contextualizing two colorful portraits of and by Derain and Matisse shown alongside the photo. The use of these photographs also reminds us of the representational art that Matisse and Derain worked to reimagine.

Afauvist painting of boats in France.

André Derain, “Fishing Boats, Collioure,” 1905, oil on canvas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Raymonde Paul, in memory of her brother, C. Michael Paul, and purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1982 © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The themes for this exhibition are set up with the contrast of the two portraits. Derain’s portrait of Matisse, instead of shading his face with fleshtones, uses red and green to contour it. Matisse’s thick beard is rendered with short, thick brushes of paint, the lack of blending only adding to the texture. By not adhering to natural color, Derain’s portrait of Matisse feels expressive and creative, since he was unconfined to strictly painting Matisse as he appeared. In contrast, Matisse offers viewers a more whimsical perspective of Derain. His subject looks over his shoulder, caught in a brief pose that will change quickly with the turn of his head. The light colors are painted with a silkier finish compared to Derain’s more textural brushstrokes. In each painting, the subject sports a unique accessory, as if a token of self-expression: Matisse clasps a curved red pipe in his mouth, while Derain wears a bright red cap. The pair reanimate the tradition of portraiture, and by breaking the traditional role of color, show audiences in the past and present that this element can take on the leading role.

A small plot twist of this exhibition is the highlighting of the importance of the people and place surrounding Derain and Matisse during their time in Collioure, particularly Madame Amélie Matisse. She frequently modeled for them, becoming a motif of calm amongst the town’s beautiful surroundings, as in Matisse’s Woman with an Umbrella at the Seashore

A fauvist painting of a woman in a Kimono.

André Derain, “Woman with a Shawl, Madame Matisse in a Kimono,” 1905, oil on canvas, private collection, courtesy of Nevill Keating Pictures, London © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

In Derain’s Woman with a Shawl, Madame Matisse in a Kimono, Amélie appears caught in a moment of weariness, like the fatigue after spending a warm afternoon at the beach. She wears a striking blue and white shawl with a scrolling pattern, which reappears in another drawing of Matisse’s titled Madame Matisse with Her Fan, in which she claps a red fan, yet another red object of self-expression. Fauve artists sometimes worked quickly in order to capture a brief moment of time, and Amélie’s consistent presence allowed for these shutter-quick paintings. In Derain’s Matisse and His Wife at Collioure, he captures Matisse and Amélie sitting near the water; Amélie reads while Matisse paints, giving us an idea of how many of their days in Collioure must have transpired.

An installation shot of “Vertigo of Color, Matisse, Derain, and the Origins of Fauvism.”

“Vertigo of Color, Matisse, Derain, and the Origins of Fauvism,” installation view at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston

Derain never returned to Collioure after that summer, but Matisse went back several times, always attempting but never feeling like he succeeded in capturing the natural beauty of Collioure. Their work together from that one summer of 1905 truly shook up the world of art and proved that color can be expressive and powerful without being representational, that brushstrokes can be loose and sparse, and that everyday subjects like a woman walking on the beach are significant enough for painting. Seeing this selection of Matisse’s and Derain’s works together illustrates the Fauves were the gateway from the early modern painters of the late nineteenth century to the modernists of the twentieth. Vertigo of Color: Matisse, Derain, and the Origins of Fauvism celebrates two friends who decided to spend a summer painting together in a small fishing town, who changed art forever and still grip us with the beauty of color.


Vertigo of Color: Matisse, Derain, and the Origins of Fauvism is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through May 27, 2024.

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