This work will be included in the forthcoming Maurice de Vlaminck Digital Database, currently being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc.
‘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…’ (Vlaminck, quoted in M. Vallès-Bled, Vlaminck: Catalogue critique des peintures et céramiques de la période fauve, Paris, 2008, p. 39).
From his earliest works as a youth to his vibrantly coloured experiments in Fauvism, and the dark, brooding landscapes of his late career, the Seine valley to the west of Paris provided Maurice de Vlaminck with unparalleled visual inspiration. Travelling on foot or by bicycle, the artist explored every corner of the hinterland around Paris, following the sinuous, looping path of the Seine as it meandered through the countryside on its way to the sea. Views of the verdant landscape and the small towns and villages he encountered along the way became the primary focus of his art, from the bustling hubs of Argenteuil and Poissy, to Bezons and Nanterre, and perhaps most importantly, Chatou and its environs, Reuil, Croissy and Bougival, where the artist settled with his family in 1906. It was in these enchanting landscapes, so closely linked to his personal life and daily experiences, that Vlaminck was able to develop his own unique, personal approach to painting.
Though Vlaminck had spent much of the early 1900s experimenting with Fauvism, by 1907 he had begun to seriously question the merits of the style as a means of expression. Dissatisfied with its apparent formlessness and eager to push beyond these purely colouristic experiments, Vlaminck began to search for a new painterly aesthetic. As he explained, ‘Working directly in this way, tube against canvas, one quickly arrives at an excessive facility… The play of pure colours, the extreme orchestration into which I threw myself unrestrainedly, no longer satisfies me. I could not stand being able to hit harder, to have to reach the maximum intensity, to be limited by the blue or red of the paint dealer…’ (Vlaminck, quoted in D. Sutton, intro, Dangerous Corner, London, 1961, p. 15). Taking the familiar sights of the Seine as it passed by Chatou and Bougival, Vlaminck began to advance his style in a new direction, filtering the landscape and its monuments through a new vision, a new means of understanding the world.
The dual 1907 retrospectives of Paul Cézanne’s work at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne proved to be a watershed moment within Vlaminck’s career, ushering in a new sense of structure and balance in his compositions. While the artist can hardly have been ignorant of Cézanne’s oeuvre prior to these events, thanks to his association with Ambroise Vollard, seeing such a large number of his works en-masse like so left an indelible impression on Vlaminck’s psyche. Such was his admiration for Cézanne during this critical period in his career that Vlaminck dismissed Picasso’s cubist experiments as disgraceful attempts to better the structural finesse already introduced to ‘modern’ paintings two decades previously by Cézanne. Indeed, he went further still, claiming that Cézanne was an even greater artist than Rembrandt: ‘Painting does not make progress, it is transformed according to the time, with the means of expression of the time. Monsieur Rembrandt has no more sensibility or more grandeur than Cézanne’ (Vlaminck, quoted in F. Fels, L’Art et la vie Vlaminck, Paris, 1928, pp. 123-124).
The impact of Cézanne’s art can be clearly detected in Personnage assis au bord de la Seine, particularly in the highly constructive brushstrokes which form the scene and the reduction of the palette to a cool range of blues, greens and ochres. The thick foliage of the overhanging trees, the shimmering surface of the flowing river, and the geometric facades of the houses on the far bank, are all reduced to a series of overlapping, structural planes which echo Cézanne’s creation of three-dimensional space. While the figure perched on the riverbank is captured in a series of careful and deliberate the brushstrokes, this control gives way to a wilder and looser handling in the thick vegetation and vibrant surface of the water. These bursts of energy break through the artist’s more disciplined moments, imbuing these elements with a paradoxical sense of stillness and movement, a lyrical effect that demonstrates Vlaminck’s inherent understanding of the landscape surrounding him.