André Derain was born in 1880 at Chatou, which was then a kind of artists’ colony at the gates of Paris. His father was a successful pastry chef and a town councillor. Derain received a middle-class education but disliked school calling it a ‘more bitter memory for me than the darkest hours of my military career.’
He took his first lessons in painting in 1895 from an old friend of his father and Cézanne. In 1898 he went to the Académie Carriere in Paris, where he met Matisse. Later, in June 1900 he met Maurice de Vlaminck with whom he formed a close friendship. Together they rented a disused restaurant in Chatou which they used as a studio, much to the disgust of their neighbours who they often shocked with their behaviour.
During the next couple of years Derain pursued his studies, copying old masters in the Louvre and visiting exhibitions of contemporary art. He was extremely impressed by the Van Gogh retrospective at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in 1901, and it was here he introduced his two friends, Vlaminck and Matisse, to one another.
Later in 1901 Derain was called up for military service and on his release in September 1904 he returned to Chatou. It was at about this time that he got to know the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The following year, 1905, the dealer Ambroise Vollard, to whom he had been introduced by Matisse, bought the entire contents of his studio (he did the same with Vlaminck).
Derain exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants and sold four pictures, and later in 1905 at the Salon d’Automne where he, Matisse, Vlaminck and others were hung together as a group, in a space that was promptly dubbed the ‘Cage aux Fauves’ (‘Cage of Wild Beasts’) and Fauvism was officially born.
“Following his success at the Salon d’Automne, Vollard commissioned some views of London from him, and he visited England for the first time, returning in 1906. The summer of 1906 was spent painting at L’Estaque, where he met Picasso, and in the next year he signed a contract with Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, Picasso’s dealer.
He married on the strength of this new financial security, and with his wife, Alice, went to live in Montmartre, where his friendship with Picasso continued.
Between 1920 and 1924 four books were published about his work and as a result he began to move in fashionable circles. The aristocratic patron Count Etienne de Beaumont, who had set himself up as Diaghilev’s rival, offered him theatrical commissions in 1924 and 1926.
His reputation rose to new heights when he was awarded the Carnegie Prize in 1928 and began to exhibit extensively abroad – in London in 1928; in Berlin, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf in 1929; in New York and Cincinnati in 1930; and once again in London and New York in 1931.
During the 1930s he gradually lost touch with many of his old friends. He bought a large house at Chambourcy near Saint Germain-en-Laye, though he also maintained a pied-a-terre in Paris. The latter served several purposes: he found it difficult to find good models at Chambourcy, where he lived with Alice, his wife, her sister, and the latter’s daughter; it also provided a convenient place to meet his mistresses.
During the second World War he was courted by the Germans, because he belonged to a group of artists who could not be dismissed by Nazi theoreticians as ‘degenerate’. Hitler’s Foreign Minister Ribbentrop wanted him to come to Germany and paint his whole family: Derain rejected this offer, but accepted an invitation to make an official visit to Germany in 1941. Vlaminck also agreed to accompany the party. The German propaganda machine made much of Derain’s presence in the Reich, and after the Liberation he was branded as a collaborator and ostracised by many French people.
In 1953 Derain fell ill, and his sight was seriously affected. His wife made an attempt to seize control of his affairs and to keep certain old friends (and the mothers of his two children) from him. As soon as he was well again he and Alice separated.
He did not enjoy his freedom very long, because in 1954 a truck in Chambourcy knocked him down. At first it was thought he was not seriously injured, but the shock was too much for a man now in his seventies. He did not recover but lived long enough to make an official reconciliation with his wife.