Effortless nonchalance and confident mastery. That’s the winning combination which enabled André Derain to create a masterpiece that now ranks among the museum’s ten greatest highlights – and among the visitors’ firm favourites.
André Derain’s Woman in a Chemise has often been used as the eye-catching feature of publications, posters and in other contexts because it has such striking visual impact and is so easily recognisable, even if one doesn’t remember who the artist is.
‘I think it’s an amazingly virtuoso picture. Derain’s works with composition, colours and lines in a hugely sophisticated manner. If you look more closely at the female figure’s hand, it is completely deformed, but still it seems exactly right in the picture, giving it a sense of freshness and wildness. Note the flowing lines, too. The painting is very nonchalant in its execution, yet insanely confident at the same time. It is utterly compelling as a work of art, and at the same time it sends a strong signal about what French Modernism is,’ says chief curator and senior researcher Dorthe Aagesen.
Reinterpreting a classic motif
The manner of painting is not the only interesting feature of this picture. André Derain draws on an established tradition in modern French art: finding artistic subject matter in places of entertainment in Paris. The generation of artists that preceded him, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, moved among dancers and performers in the late 1800s, and André Derain reinterprets such imagery by means of modern devices.
His painting shows a dancer from the restaurant and night club Le rat mort (The Dead Rat), which was also one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s regular haunts. Half undressed, the dancer sits with her stockinged legs crossed, slumped on what looks like a bed as she looks directly out at us.
‘It’s a tremendously strong image. The composition has been very carefully thought through, based on a triangular system, and the overall effect gives the painting a strong monumentality. The stringency of the composition and the simple colour scheme with its vivid contrasts helps create a visual impact that is almost poster-like,’ says Dorthe Aagesen.
The painting is a key work from Derain’s ‘Fauvist’ period (from the French, Le fauve: the wild ones). It has its origins in a summer spent with the somewhat older fellow artist Henri Matisse in 1905 in the town of Collioure in the south of France. Here, they both experimented with using colours in new ways, taking them beyond a purely descriptive function, such as showing us that the sea is blue. Here, colours are also used to describe emotional states.
Not a superstar
In Collioure, both artists created number of revolutionary paintings arising out of the interplay between their different personalities. Derain was young and technically brilliant, able to move in many directions, and he possessed a wildness that the older Henri Matisse did not have. Matisse, on the other hand, was more philosophical and contemplative by nature.
‘In 1960, Derain is still a young artist at the outset of his career, not a superstar like Matisse was by then. Still, Derain is considered a significant artist in Paris at this time, and he takes part in the important exhibitions of the period. Woman in a Chemise is an important work in SMK’s French collection, where Derain is strongly represented with no less than nineteen paintings,’ says Dorthe Aagesen.
Once Derain had tried what Fauvism had to offer, he moves swiftly on, taking an interest in more metaphysical matters. He looks to history for inspiration, back at various classic motifs, including some from the Renaissance.
When a number of his works come up for auction in the 1920s, his later things attract the greatest interest from buyers. Fortunately, the Danish art collector Johannes Rump buys Woman in a Chemise and later donates it to SMK.