Andrew Lambirth

Unalloyed delight

André Derain (1880–1954) has a somewhat mixed reputation. He is widely praised for his early paintings, done when he worked alongside Matisse and Vlaminck and they took the art world by the throat with their Fauve extremism, but his later work is largely dismissed. To quote the Yale Dictionary of Art & Artists, it ‘combined traditional modes with modern sketchiness attractive to those who seek academic assurances in new art’. Fairly slighting, but, in some cases at least, justified. Derain’s post-war work was certainly unadventurous, but then he had determined to be the solid classical reactionary. What we need now is a well-chosen retrospective of his entire career to highlight its undoubted strengths, rather than dwell upon its weaknesses. It’s the kind of exhibition the Academy could do with distinction, and the Tate used to take pride in, before it began to sink beneath a superfluity of curators. In the meantime we are stuck with the stereotype, though this has its compensations. At the Courtauld we are offered a small but superb exhibition devoted to Derain’s London pictures, and what an unalloyed delight it is.

At the suggestion of the dealer Ambroise Vollard, who hoped that the 25-year-old artist would somehow emulate Monet’s earlier success in painting the English capital, Derain visited London three times in the first decade of the 20th century. He wasn’t impressed with the people (though he thought the girls were rather good-looking), dismissing the English spirit as ‘sad, hypocritical and mocking’, but he loved the museums, and spent more time in the National Gallery and British Museum than almost anywhere else. His great subject, like Monet’s, was to be the Thames, but he didn’t find it easy to paint. Indeed, as his letters to compatriots at home demonstrate, he was much preoccupied with theory at this time, with ideas about what art should be, in between revelling in the glories of Turner, Rembrandt and primitive art.

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