What is being Fauve in the early 20th century ?
First there was a play on words by the critic Louis Vauxcelles. During his visit of the 3rd Salon d'Automne of 1905, which took place after the «salon des indépendants» in spring, he discovered with astonishment a room where classical sculptures of a small marble bust and a child’s torso from Marque, the sculptor, were surrounded by garish paintings from Matisse , Manguin, Derain ...
In an extract pulled from the popular newspaper "Gil Blas" of October 17 concerning the exhibit, Vauxcelles declared, "the candor of these busts surprises in the middle of an orgy of pure tones: «a Donatello amongst wild beasts» ("Donatello parmi les fauves").
The word said, Vauxcelles nevertheless continued to defend this style of painting, although not always with the best words, against academic art or Cubism, the art that he considered pretentious and devastating. In the same extract, he used the word «Fauve» (wild beasts) five times and was particularly interested in paintings that illustrated this closeness to the animal:The large painting of Henri Rousseau "The hungry lion throws itself on the antelope ...", Manet's work, "The Portrait of Pertuiset, the lion hunter" (Pertuiset served as model for Daudet’s Tartarin de Tarascon), and Raffaëlli’s "Clemenceau making a speech at the cirque Fernando". Vauxcelles, who was amongst the first to call Clemenceau "the tiger" in 1903, highlights in this painting, the Kalmyk (Mongolian) cheekbones of the over thrower of the Ministry making a speech at the circus....
We understand why this salon that was dominated by a combination of «fauves» (wild beasts) next to explosive and garish paintings was the occasion of a major scandal. The «Fauve» colour makes specific reference to the tawny tones of the game of our land, ochre, sepia, sienna, and assimilates the painters to the wild beasts. The word evokes a "melanodermia",a skin pigmentation, which is not of the prevailing taste; Gauguin who appreciates Delacroix’s "colour and «fauve» aura" renders the right tone with the Tahitians.
Politicians are also compared to «fauves» (wild animals) because of the colour of their opinions and their beards. It is the case for Clemenceau "the tiger" or the «Pétroleuses de la Commune» who are accused of having beast instincts that must be extinguished. This new savagery, bearing the colours of the territory and of the savannah, was already claimed by poets such as Mallarmé in whom the poetic spirit is "un ange à la cuirasse fauve" (an angel with a tawny coloured cuirass) (1865) or Verlaine recalling his first encounter with Rimbaud: "He seemed to have fallen from a wild planet."
As early as 1906, the expression "cage aux Fauves" is a success, because it expresses a double aggression: one that delivers a captive audience to the spectacle of unintelligible works and one that delivers new artists to the howls of the outraged public.
And, by opposition, we can also see the success of works such as those of Gérôme which illustrate the martyrdom of Christians facing the lions in a time of separation between the church and the state. «Les Fauves» are truly heretics. Many will remain loyal to this genre of painting, in particular Vlaminck, but the terrible Picasso painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" of 1907, fragmented and more aggressive than any other «fauve» painting, Braque and Picasso’s new painting style, the abandonment of colour, collages and then abstraction or poetic and provoking art of the Dadaists sounded the death knell of the originality of this painting before the war of 1914. It is by opposition to new movements that the word "Fauvism" will appear much later (around 1925-1930) well after that of Cubism, as a kind of rampart, a defence of figurative, naturalistic or rustic painting against all other trends relying more on the intellect and imagination (surrealism). Fauvism is thus one of the first expressionisms, the French trend of the first international expressionism.
If you want to know more discover the article on technique of the Masters : The colours and smell of fauvism.