André Derain - The London Paintings At The Courtauld Institute

By Paul Fitzpatrick | 04 November 2005
a painting of Waterloo Bridge with a green speckled river and yellow sky

Waterloo Bridge (Le Pont de Waterloo), 1906-7. Oil on canvas. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Paul Fitzpatrick visits the Courtauld Institute to see some wildly colourful views of Edwardian London.

André Derain: The London Paintings brings together for the first time the artist's series of large-scale paintings of London, produced between 1906 and 1907.

The work in the show, on until January 22 2006 at the Courtauld Institute of Art, takes in familiar London sights such as the Palace of Westminster, London Bridge and Hyde Park.

"Although painted as a group," says curator Barnaby Wright, "Derain's London paintings were never exhibited in their entirety by his dealer Ambroise Vollard."

a painting of a lady strolling in a park with her dog on a bright pink pathway

Hyde Park, 1906-7. Oil on canvas. Musée d'art Moderne, Troyes. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Derain (1880-1954) came to London in 1906, a year after making a name for himself as one of the most radical artists in Paris. Along with Henri Matisse he developed a groundbreaking approach to painting. By the use of blocks of non-naturalistic colour and unrestrained brushwork Derain was able to achieve what he described as "a complete renewal of expression". This break with traditional techniques of painting led critics to describe the young artists as Fauves, or wild beasts.

His intention in travelling to London was to produce a series of works that would rival Claude Monet's London views, which had been exhibited to great acclaim in 1904. He did not paint in Monet’s misty, muted style, though. In Derain's vision the river Thames is transformed into shimmering splashes of turquoise and emerald under tangerine skies: Sixties psychedelia pre-dated by half a century.

a painting of a street scene showing people riding on horseback

Regent Street, 1906-7. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Scenes such as Barges of the Thames remind you that this was once a river of commerce; the Pool Of London, the area between London Bridge and the Tower, teems with traffic. Warehouses, refiners, and chimneystacks line the embankments. Using this backdrop, Derain takes us on an excursion into the super-real.

There's a real energy to the paintings: sparks of illumination ripple throughout to dazzling effect. The sky seemingly free of fog and soot, this is Edwardian London with a serious makeover.

Horse-drawn carriages drive past carefree Regent Street shoppers; the thoroughfare re-imagined in a carnival of colour to enliven the most jaded modern eyes.

a brightly coloured painting of the River Thames with Tower Bridge in the background and red boats in the foreground

The Thames and Tower Bridge (La Tamise et Tower Bridge), 1906-7. Oil on canvas. Fridart Foundation. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Also on display is one of Derain’s two recently rediscovered and previously unexhibited London sketchbooks, lent from a private collection. These cast new light on the artist's working practice and suggest, remarkably, that he painted almost all of the London views in his studio in Paris.

Furthermore, adds Barnaby Wright: "They reveal how his studies of the city made from extensive walks along the Thames were interspersed with visits to the British Museum and the National Gallery."

Somerset House in central London proves an ideal setting for the exhibition. A full century on you can take a short stroll down to the Thames and see the city anew.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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