Fauvism is a relatively short-lived movement in French painting (from about 1898 to about 1908) that revolutionized the concept of color in modern art. The fauves rejected the impressionist palette of soft, shimmering tones in favor of the violent colors used by the postimpressionists Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh for expressive emphasis. They achieved a poetic energy through vigorous line, simplified yet dramatic surface pattern, and intense color.
Les fauves, literally "the wild beasts," was originally a pejorative label applied to the group at their first exhibition in 1905, although the fauvist style had been employed by the group's members for several years before that date. The artists included André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy, Georges Braque, Henri Manguin, Albert Marquet, Jean Puy, Emile Othon Friesz, and Henri Matisse, their undisputed leader. The epithet was never accepted by the painters themselves and, indeed, in no way does it describe their sunny or lyrically subjective imagery.
Technically, the fauvist use of color derived from experiments made by Matisse at Saint-Tropez in the summer of 1904, working with the neoimpressionist painters who placed small dabs of pure color side by side to achieve an even more optically correct image than that of the impressionists. Matisse's neoimpressionist pictures, while abiding strictly by the rules, show, beyond a mere recording of optical response, a strong interest in lyrical color.
In the summer of 1905, Matisse and Derain painted together at Collioure in "a golden light that eliminates shadows." They began to use pure complementary colors applied in flat, vigorous strokes, achieving an equivalent rather than a description of light. In their high-key colors these pictures dazzle the viewer with Mediterranean sunshine. When a neighboring collector showed them some South Seas pictures by Gauguin, they saw their theories of subjective color confirmed, and fauvism was born.
Matisse made the final break with optical color; a woman's nose could be flat green if it added to the color composition and expression of the painting. Matisse said, "I do not paint women; I paint pictures."
Each of the painters experimented with the principles of the style in his own way. By about 1908, however, all had forsaken strict adherence to the mannerisms of a school. With color firmly established as a personally expressive element of painting, each went his own way.