‘I cannot insist too strongly that a stay here is absolutely necessary for your work […] I am certain that if you take my advice you will be glad of it.’ This is the invitation that Henri Matisse sent to André Derain in 1905 urging him to join him for the summer at Collioure, a small port on the French Mediterranean coast not far from the border with Spain. When Derain joined his friend, he was fired with enthusiasm for Collioure with its dramatic setting, its bronzed inhabitants and, above all, the powerful ‘blonde’ light which he described as ‘a golden hue that suppresses the shadows’. Working alongside Matisse, he forged a bold new style, simplifying his art to rely on the expressive power of bright, sensuous colour applied with a childlike sense of excitement and spontaneity. For both artists this was an extraordinarily productive few months marking a turning point in their development.
On their painting expeditions during that summer, Matisse and Derain explored various motifs in and around the town and its busy fishing port. The view in our painting is still recognisable today and was taken from the high ground to the north side of the harbour looking over the tiled roofs of a narrow street to a panoramic view of the bay and the coastline. The cylindrical bell-tower of the church of Notre Dame des Anges is just visible in the middle distance; and beyond, a solitary sail helps to carry our eye across the bay to the distant shore. Derain was familiar with the work of Van Gogh and there is a resemblance here to the fluid paint and distorted forms of some of the Dutchman’s later pictures. There are echoes too of Cézanne who had painted views of the bay of Marseilles using a strong contrast between red-orange roofs and the blue sea as the basis of his composition. But Derain successfully fuses these sources into something new, raw and powerful.
There is no attempt to use any finesse in the colour relationships to suggest space or atmosphere. Instead we are confronted with a mosaic of strong colours dominated by glaring oranges and yellows contrasting with the luscious indigo of the sea. All the elements in the composition, whether buildings, land, sea or air, are painted with equal weight and any suggestion of perspective is countered by an insistent flatness. Derain may be using a recognisable scene as his starting point, but his painting seems to declare its independence from observed reality.
Later that year Derain showed some of his views of Collioure in Paris alongside works by Matisse and other like-minded young artists. The reactions were generally hostile, and the famous use of the word fauves (wild beasts) by one critic to describe what seemed like an orgy of colour came to stand for a whole new movement in French art. Derain’s paintings were singled out as being crude and puerile, the work of a ‘poster artist’ rather than a painter. But it was precisely this deliberate naïvety, the effort to abandon convention and to see the world with fresh eyes, that characterises the works that Matisse and Derain produced that summer. Derain’s Collioure resonates with a sense of artistic freedom, and so it is hardly surprising that this great painting has become one of the anchor points of the collection.
Published online 2016/17
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.