Evocative of the gleaming atmosphere and colours of Southern France, Bateaux au Port de Collioure is part of a series of seminal works that André Derain executed in 1905 at Collioure. Predominantly composed of primary colours and daring, thick brushstrokes, these works were instrumental in provoking the birth of Fauvism that same year. Bateaux au Port de Collioure depicts an harbour scene in which the tall poles of the sailboats are arranged like strings of vibrant orange stretching across the blue of the sea, establishing a connection between the jumbled, festive colours of the keels and the maternal curves of the pink and yellow mountains across the bay. Derain tackled the painting with incredible speed and assurance, deploying colours straight out of the tube and applying them to the canvas with swift brushstrokes and impulsive dabs. Exploiting the luminous tone of the bare canvas, the artist let unpainted passages become an integral part of the painting, thus assigning the colours an even more prominent value.
Works such as Bateaux au Port de Collioure were born out of the close collaboration and exchange of ideas between artists. Derain's early career had benefitted greatly from his friendship with the painter Maurice de Vlaminck, who would later also become part of the Fauvist group. According to Fauve lore, Derain and Vlaminck had met on a train to Paris in 1900 when it derailed. The next day, they set out to paint together. In 1901, they visited together the Van Gogh retrospective that was going to have great impact on many of the Fauves-to-be. On that occasion, Derain introduced Vlaminck to Matisse, whom he had met at the Atelier Carrière in the late 1890s. An initial Fauve triumvirate was thus formed under the aegis of Van Gogh. Yet, that first gathering did not last long: in 1901 Derain was summoned to military service and Vlaminck, who stayed in the provincial town of Chatou, temporarily lost contact with Matisse and the Parisian circle of painters. Throughout his time in the army, however, Derain corresponded regularly with Vlaminck, discussing painting and colour. As early as 1901, Derain was expressing the belief that a new phase had begun for painting: 'As for painting, I am aware that the realist period has ended. We are just about to begin, as far as painting is concerned. Without going as far as the abstraction of the paintings of Van Gogh – abstraction that I do not contend – I believe that lines and colours entertain relationships strong enough, in their parallel to a vital base, to allow for a research in their reciprocal and infinite existence and to find in their synthesis a field, not necessarily new, but more real and more importantly more simple' (Derain, letter to Vlaminck in 1901, in A. Derain, Lettres à Vlaminck, Paris, 1994, pp. 52-53). Bateaux au Port de Collioure represents the flowering of the experiments Derain had been conducting over the preceding years with Vlaminck. Derain's announcement of the advent of a 'more real' and 'more simple' field of painting seems perfectly illustrated in the immediacy of Bateaux au Port de Collioure.
Executed at Collioure, paintings such as the present work were part of a seasonal, creative moment which saw Derain and Matisse working in tandem on a series of revolutionary paintings. Derain's propitious trip to Collioure had been possible thanks to a stroke of luck. In February that same year, Matisse had introduced Ambroise Vollard to Derain. Astonished by Derain's impassioned use of colour, Vollard had bought the entire contents of the artist's studio at Chatou. With his endowment, Derain was able to accept Matisse's invitation to stay in Collioure with him that summer to paint together. Derain arrived in Collioure in July and only returned to Paris in September, making the most of the summer light of the South and the picturesque scenery of the littoral coast and the small port of the town. A letter, which the artist sent to Vlaminck in mid-July, resumes the sense of intense creative preoccupation and the sensorial overload that the encounter with the Mediterranean had provoked in the artist: 'I don't have a second for myself, because I am working a lot: and that is monopolising my brain, because I am still overwhelmed by my emotion… this country is made of people with tanned faces whose skin colours are brown, orange, intense; some bluish beards… then some red, green or grey potteries… donkeys, boats, white sails, multi-coloured small boats. But above all it is the light. A blond, golden light which makes shadows disappear' (quoted in J.L. Andral, 'Derain en plein Midi', pp. 67-74, in André Derain: Le peintre du “trouble moderne”, exh. cat., Paris, 1994, p. 70). Transforming a port scene into a jubilant riot of colour, Bateaux au Port de Collioure captures the artist's enchantment before the brilliancy of the Mediterranean. Colours are used in their pure state, juxtaposed to create a vivid sense of pervasive sunlight, in which shadow has disappeared.
Derain's experience at Collioure and the paintings he produced there would mark a seminal moment in his career. By the end of July, the artist was already able to discern the two major teachings that his stay with Matisse in Southern France had given him. In a letter to Vlaminck, he explained: 'I thus have two important points for which my trip revealed itself to be very useful:
'1) A new conception of light which consists in the following: the negation of shadow. Here, light is very strong, shadows very bright. Shadows are a world of clarity and luminosity which opposes itself to the light of the sun: what one calls reflections. Both of us had ignored this until now and going forward this will let us gain in expression.
'2) Knowing, having been close to Matisse, how to extract everything the division of tones had to offer. He continues to use it, but I got over it completely and I now almost never use it. It appears logic in a luminous and harmonious panel. But it harms those things which take their expression from intentional disharmonies.'
In this letter, Derain announced the two principles that he had put to test in paintings such as Bateaux au Port de Collioure. The idea of shadow, understood in the traditional sense of a sombre, lack of luminosity, had disappeared: in the mountains across the bay, the shadows of the ridges are rendered in a bright blue, as luminous as the sky above and not in a darker shade of yellow. The painting also illustrates Derain's refusal of that 'division of tones' he mentions in the letter, in favour of pure colour: the sea had ceased to be a conglomerate of complementary colours minutely combined in small touches, to become a dense stream of lighter and darker pure blue. In the middle of the bay, Derain went as far as to place a few daring red dabs of paint, poetically capturing the refraction of light on the choppy surface of the water.
Upon his return to Paris in September 1905, Derain prepared a selection of paintings to be exhibited at the Salon d'Automne, which included some of the views of Collioure the artist had just completed. The hasty inclusion suggests that paintings such as Bateaux au Port de Collioure represented for the artist the latest, important development of his work. The 1905 Salon d'Automne would be a succès de scandale: Derain's works, together with Matisse's, caused an uproar. The critic Louis Vauxcelles – outraged by the 'orgies of pure tones' proposed by Derain and Matisse – coined, with contempt, the term 'fauves' (wild beasts) which would later be adopted to describe the momentous revolution these artists had indeed proposed. Despite the vehement critiques, Vollard was once again enthusiastic: in January he arranged for Derain to visit London, where the painter composed a second series of Fauvist landscapes, this time adapting his fiery Fauvist palette to capture the atmospheric effects of the Thames. Painted under the scorching sun of a small coastal town of Southern France, Bateaux au Port de Collioure commemorates a seminal moment in the history of the avant-garde, as well as Derain's central role in determining a new role for colour: passionate, immediate and radical.