The origins of modern art are typically traced back to the formal deconstructions of Cubism or Duchamp’s conceptual games. Comparatively little is said about the earlier influence of the Fauves, led by Henri Matisse and his friend André Derain, who carried the radical ideas of post-Impressionists like Cézanne and Van Gogh into the 20th century.
The movement, known for its painterly style and strong use of color, is finally getting its due with “Matisse, Derain and Friends,” a major survey show that opened last weekend, on September 2, at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland.
The show, which is on view until January 21, 2024, seeks to challenge the conventional understanding of Fauvism as a boy’s club, by showcasing the contributions of its much lesser known women members. It also highlights the long-overlooked experiences of sex workers who are subject of some of the Fauvists’ paintings.
Perhaps the best known female Fauve was Émilie Charmy who, after becoming orphaned at a young age, refused the kind of teaching jobs someone of her sex and social status would usually gravitate towards. Instead, she chose to study under the artist Jacques Martin and managed to support herself by producing charming, decorative interior scenes and still-lives.
In private, however, Charmy’s practice was highly avant-garde, and she is now best known for her intriguingly ambiguous self-portraits and seductive female nudes. After moving to Paris in 1903, she befriended the Fauves, including Matisse and Charles Camoin, the latter of whom she became romantically involved with. In one 1906 self-portrait, she shows herself lying back with one breast exposed, a daringly risqué choice at a time when a woman’s modesty was of paramount importance.
“Charmy, it would appear, sees like a woman and paints like a man,” the early 20th century writer Roland Dorgelès once remarked. “From the one she takes grace and from the other strength, and this is what makes her such a strange and powerful painter who holds our attention.”
Another woman member, Marie Laurencin, was variably dubbed or (meaning the lady fauve or the doe among the wild beasts, respectively). She moved in the same circles as many modernist painters, including Georges Braques and Francis Picabia, both of whom she met as a student at the Académie Humbert, and Guillaume Apollinaire, who was at one time her lover. She is represented in the exhibition by a self-portrait of herself in the guise of the Romanic hunting goddess Diana and by her portrait of André Derain’s wife Alice.
These artists, and their male counterparts, owed some of their early success to Berthe Weill, one of the very first women to become an art dealer in Paris when she established her gallery in Montmartre at the turn of the century. She had a knack for spotting legendary modernist talents before they became well known—she was selling works by Pablo Picasso as early as 1900—and began exhibiting the Fauves in 1902, starting with Matisse and Albert Marquet.
At the same time that the group were scandalizing critics at the Salon in 1905, Weill organized her own show of works by Charmy, Matisse, Derain, Marquet, Camoin, Raoul Dufy, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Henri Manguin. The critic Louis Vauxcelles clearly understood her role in promoting these highly experimental artists, remarking that “it was on the walls of [Mademoiselle] Weill’s that the Fauves were first seen. [The male dealers] Vollard and Druet came later.”
Another little known advocate for the Fauves was Matisse’s wife Amélie Parayre-Matisse, who had been working at her aunt’s hat shop when they met in 1898. At that time, Matisse struggled to make a living from his art, so Amélie supported him and their three children with the money she earned from her textile designs.
Sex Workers as Overlooked Subjects
Most of the 120 artworks included in the exhibition were inspired by everyday life, and therefore provide excellent insight into the social history of Paris in the early 1900s. The show’s catalog has brought to light important new research by the historian Gabrielle Houbre about the experiences of sex workers, who often appeared in these paintings as models.
Hot spots for solicitation that were visited by the Fauves include dance halls like the Moulin Rouge, the artistic café Rat Mort, both in Paris, where they met dancers who posed for both Vlamnick and Derain, as well as London’s Regent Street, where some French women were illegally trafficked. Many of the portrayals sensitively capture a certain style or mood, as in the case of Auguste Chabaud’s ) (1907) of Yvette, a woman that he was hopelessly in love with.
In 1908, the Dutch artist Kees van Dongen painted drag performer Claude Modjesko, who had been born in South Carolina in the late 1870s to formerly enslaved parents. He began performing in minstrel shows as a teenager before moving to Europe in 1898, where he sang under the stage name “the Black Patti” and supplemented his income through sex work.
Van Dongen, who often frequented cabarets and brothels to look for subjects, first saw him at the Circus Variété in Rotterdam in July 1907.
With a similar appetite for a city’s more seedy side, Camoin became a regular observer at Rue Bouterie in Marseille’s notorious red-light district. One sex worker from the strip posed for (1905), which, despite the bold, almost confrontational stance, historian Houbre reads as an idealized, erotic, and healthy subject whose appearance does not reflect the stigma then associated with prostitution. It may be wishful thinking: that same year Marquet wrote to Matisse that he and Camoin had enjoyed a visit to the bars of Saint-Tropez to look for artistic inspiration and left with “some painful memories and a large stock of pharmaceuticals.”
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