Painted in 1905, Arbres à Collioure represents the pinnacle of Derain's career as well as of the Fauve movement. Its vibrant palette and wildly expressive composition place it among the artist's greatest achievements. Indeed, it is the unique painterly quality of the work which reflects precisely the power and immediacy of the artist's technique; every brushstroke is invigorated by the spirit of that most revolutionary summer of his career, spent with Henri Matisse in Collioure (fig. 1). Matisse had invited Derain to the small coastal town in early July 1905 and they spent the following two months working in close proximity, often painting the same subject (figs. 2 & 3). The sun-drenched atmosphere so typical of southern France had a profound effect on Derain and, shortly after his arrival, he wrote to Maurice de Vlaminck celebrating the light: 'a blond light, a golden hue that suppresses the shadows'. Derain's preoccupation with the light and colour of the Mediterranean freed his palette, leading him to explore a new, purified form of painting.
When Derain arrived in Collioure, Matisse was working upon the influence of Paul Signac and Henri Edmond Cross, painting in brilliant tones and employing an intense framework of effervescent brushstrokes (fig. 3). This style was quickly reflected in Derain's painting, where strongly contrasting areas of colour came to achieve new prominence. During his stay in this region, Derain executed some thirty oil paintings, which constitute not only a peak in his own body of work, but also the height of the Fauve movement. The new environment was rich in sources of inspiration and Derain was fascinated by the pace of daily life in the busy port. He returned to Paris in September 1905, shortly before the opening of the famous Salon d'Automne, where the boldly coloured canvases exhibited by artists including Braque, Matisse, Vlaminck and Derain himself provoked the art critic Louis Vauxcelles to proclaim them, famously, the 'wild beasts.' The similarities in style and subject matter among the group of revolutionary painters are testament to the pace and fervour with which Fauvism evolved. At the landmark exhibition Derain was primarily represented by his exuberant views of Collioure. Indeed, the present work may well have been among those exhibited.
Writing about Matisse and Derain's depictions of the landscapes in the south of France, James D. Herbert commented that 'This manner of painting, subsequently known as the Fauve style, reached its first fruition – and perhaps its fullest realization – in the paintings Matisse and Derain executed in Collioure in the summer of 1905' (J. D. Herbert, Fauve Painting: The Making of Cultural Politics, New Haven & London, 1992, p. 89). In Arbres à Collioure, the hallmarks of the Fauve style are very much in evidence. The quickly applied, spontaneous brushstrokes constitute a remarkable example of Derain's Collioure landscapes, displaying a colouristic boldness and gestural exuberance that places it among his greatest Fauve works. Fuelled by the extraordinary audacity, creativity and passion of his youth, Derain's production of this period forms one of the most ground-breaking bodies of work that changed the course of modern painting.
The dazzling effect of the light as it permeates the branches of the cork oak trees is captured in brushstrokes of pure, primary tones. Their freshly harvested trunks are rendered in visceral reds and blues, which would appear to suggest a network of pulsating veins and, in turn, the profusion of life from earth to sky. Derain has rendered the landscape with a vibrant pattern of juxtaposed complementary colours and the scene is imbued with a mood of wild, almost arcadian isolation. Ideologically, the image of a rural retreat is highly reminiscent of Van Gogh's 'Studio of the South' in Arles and the warmth that so characterises the paintings he executed there. Indeed, Van Gogh exerted a great influence upon Derain, who first saw his works in 1901 at the artist's first retrospective exhibition held at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. This was an experience that was to determine the artistic direction of Derain and a number of his contemporaries. In Arbres à Collioure, the debt owed to Van Gogh is evident both in the choice of vibrant palette as well as of the subject matter (fig. 5).
The treatment of a single object, such as a tree, in a number of contrasting colours, is a feature that characterises Derain's style of this period, taking the Impressionist rendering of the effect of light to its extreme. His increasingly vivid palette, which bears little resemblance to naturalistic representation, is just one aspect of Derain's signature style that was subject to continual evolution. Just one year later, whilst working in the coastal town of L'Estaque, Derain was to return to the same subject as depicted in the present painting, but took an altogether more rigid approach increasingly influenced by Paul Gauguin's early Pont-Aven works; gone are the fervent, impetuous brushstrokes that one sees in the present work; in their place, Derain utilised more uniform areas of solid colour that lack the spontaneity of Arbres à Collioure. The pure high-Fauvist style typified so beautifully by the present work was ultimately short lived but was not without dramatic impact on subsequent developments in modern art.
The exquisite paintings which Derain executed during the summer of 1905 are pivotal not only in the history of the Fauve movement, but are also a milestone in the development of twentieth century art. Describing the unique pictorial effect created in Derain's works of this period, Jacqueline Munck has remarked that 'line and stroke seemed to have travelled back in time to rediscover their origins and invent mark, outline and pulsation, the rhythm of life, the natural extension of the eye that draws, a plunge into instinct, impatient graphs, fluid or solid, irrigating the obverse and reverse of the perceptible and the luminous' (J. Munck in André Derain (exhibition catalogue), Institut Valencià d'Art Modern, Valencià, 2003, p. 66). Derain's unbridled palette and almost poetic rendering of natural objects in which trees and streams appear to dance through the landscape, played a pivotal role in the development of modern painting.
Fig. 1, A view of Collioure
Fig. 2, André Derain, Les Montagnes à Collioure, July 1905, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (the John Hay Whitney Collection)
Fig. 3, Henri Matisse, Paysage de Collioure, Etude pour 'Le Bonheur de vivre', 1905, oil on canvas, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
Fig. 4, André Derain, Barques au port de Collioure, circa 1905, oil on canvas. Sold: Sotheby's, New York, 4th November 2009
Fig. 5, Vincent van Gogh, Vue d'Arles, arbres en fleurs, 1889, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Oil on canvas
(possibly) Paris, Grand Palais, Salon d'Automne, 1905
65 by 81cm. 25 5/8 by 31 7/8 in.
Walter Guadagnini, Matisse, Milan, 1993, illustrated p. 15
Pierre Schneider, Matisse, London, 2002, illustrated p. 213
Matisse-Derain, Collioure 1905, un été fauve (exhibition catalogue), Musée Départemental d'Art Moderne, Céret & Musée Départemental Matisse, Cateau-Cambrésis, 2005-06, no. 80, illustrated p. 152
Ambroise Vollard, Paris (inventory no. 1375)
Thence by descent to the present owners