The opening of the Salon d’Automne at the Grand Palais in Paris on 18 October 1905 revealed that a revolution in color was underway, which would prove to be the first completely transformative movement in the art of painting since the advent of Neo-Impressionism two decades earlier. Salle VII was hung with recent canvases whose “colours became sticks of dynamite,” André Derain–who contributed nine of these explosive pictures–later recalled. “They were primed to discharge light” (quoted in H. Spurling, The Unknown Matisse, New York, 1999, p. 325).
The critic Louis Vauxcelles called them the Fauves, “wild beasts”; others derided them as the “Incoherents,” for “having flung a pot of colors in the public’s face,” as Camille Mauclair complained (quoted in J. Elderfield, Fauvism and its Affinities, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976, p. 43). These painters became a sensation overnight; their radical pure color style, however, had actually been smoldering since the turn of the century, a few years before. The chief players were Matisse, Vlaminck and Derain. The latter’s Bateau sur la Seine, painted in late 1904, is proto-Fauvism nearing the critical point of ignition.
Derain met Vlaminck on 18 June 1900, when the commuter train they were both taking from Paris to their homes in Chatou got into an accident; they walked home together, and in conversation learned they were both aspiring artists. They set up a studio in an abandoned restaurant and painted outdoors side-by-side. “I looked at his picture,” Vlaminck recalled. “Solid, skillful, already a Derain... I spun my canvas around. Derain looked at it in silence, nodded his head and declared, ‘Very fine.’ That was the starting point of all Fauvism!” (quoted in ibid., p. 30).
Matisse ran into Derain and Vlaminck while attending the Van Gogh exhibition at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in March 1901. Vlaminck later boasted that he and Derain had converted Matisse to Fauvism when the latter visited their Chatou studio; Matisse remembered that “The painting of Derain and Vlaminck did not surprise me, for it was close to the researches I was pursuing... These young men had certain convictions very close to my own” (quoted in ibid.). “From around 1900, a kind of Fauvism held sway,” Derain later wrote. “One has only to look at the studies Matisse made from the model at that time” (quoted in ibid., p. 18).
In September 1901, Derain began his obligatory military service, which lasted three years. He remained in close touch with Vlaminck, to whom he wrote soon after joining his regiment, “I am aware that the realist period in painting is over. We are about to embark on a new phase... I believe that lines and colors are intimately related and enjoy a parallel existence from the very start... Thus we may find a field, not novel, but more real, and, above all, simpler in its synthesis” (quoted in ibid., pp. 30-31).
Derain returned to civilian life in late 1904 and resumed painting, eager to make up for lost time. He again joined forces with Vlaminck, still sharing his friend’s interest in Van Gogh, whose influence is apparent in Bateau sur le Seine, painted during this time. “In 1904, Fauvism was at the height of fashion,” Derain reminisced four decades later. “It had been an attraction for at least five years, part of the atmosphere and people’s habits” (quoted in G. Diehl, Derain, New York, 1977, pp. 16 and 21).
By early 1905 Derain began to gravitate towards Matisse, laying the groundwork for a friendship that resulted in Matisse’s invitation to Derain to join him in Collioure for what became the fabled Fauve summer. “It was Derain who increasingly showed himself ready to match Matisse in ambition, and who even at times was in advance of him... Derain’s work was surely Fauvist before Matisse’s. By the winter of 1904-1905, when Matisse was deep in Neo-Impressionism, Derain’s painting had entered that ‘new phase... more real, and above all, simpler in its synthesis’” (ibid., p. 34).