Greatest Art Critics Series
Louis Vauxcelles

Biography of French Art Critic who coined the words "Fauvism" and "Cubism".

Art Critic Louis Vauxcelles.

Louis Vauxcelles (1870-1943)


How Fauvism Got Its Name
How Cubism Got Its Name


Portrait of Matisse (1905)
By Andre Derain. The pink and
red colours of its beard attracted
derision from spectators.

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One of the best known art critics writing about modern art between the turn of the century and the outbreak of World War I, Louis Vauxcelles achieved international fame in October 1905 when he invented the famous phrase "Les Fauves" (wild beasts), in his review of the vividly coloured pictures of the Fauvist painters at the Salon D'Automne, in Paris. Vauxcelles used the term "wild beasts" when contrasting a Renaissance statue which was displayed in the same gallery. He pointed to the sculpture and exclaimed: "Donatello parmi les fauves" (Donatello among wild beasts). Many critics agreed with him. (Another nickname for the Fauves was "the incoherents.) Never had Paris witnessed such a garish, non-naturalistic use of colour in painting: the public was scandalized. Three years later in November 1908, Louis Vauxcelles repeated his trick of naming important modern art movements, when he reviewed an exhibition of landscapes by Georges Braque (1882-1963) at the gallery of Daniel Kahnweiler (1884-1979). In his article, he referred to the artist's way of reducing everything "to geometric outlines, or cubes", a remark which he followed up, in March 1909, by describing another set of Braque's pictures - this time at the Salon des Independants - as "bizarries cubiques" (cubic oddities). Thus he is one of the few art critics who can claim to have had a hand in christening two of the most revolutionary movements in the history of art. For other art critics from the same period, see: Louis Leroy (1812-1885), Felix Feneon (1861-1944) and Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918).

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How Fauvism Got Its Name

Born in Paris, Vauxcelles was, by 1900, one of the most widely read art critics in France, whose articles on painting and sculpture appeared regularly in several different newspapers and journals - notably Gil Blas and Excelsior. Despite his opposition to both Fauvism and Cubism, he was not known for having conservative views. True, he disliked abstract art, which was becoming more prevalent, but he was equally ill-disposed towards the academic art of the official Paris Salon. He had originally made the comment "Donatello parmi les fauves" when talking with Matisse himself, and had liked it so much that he repeated it later in his written review for Gil Blas.

See also: History of Expressionist Painting (1880-1930). To see fauvism in context, see: Expressionist Movement (1880s on).

As it was, Fauvist painters were delighted with the scandal attaching to the new name that Vauxcelles had bestowed upon them. By dubbing them "wild beasts", Vauxcelles plucked them from obscurity and made them the talk of Paris. (Curiously, Vauxcelles's choice of words may have been triggered by a large non-Fauvist jungle painting by Henri Rousseau which was displayed near Matisse's notorious work Woman with a Hat.) Their style of painting may have shocked the public and most of the critics - "A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public", wrote Camille Mauclair (1872–1945) - but dealers and art collectors were far more enthusiastic. As well as French buyers like Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), Kahnweiler and Berthe Weill, Fauvist works attracted wealthy foreign buyers like Albert Barnes (1872-1951), Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936) and Ivan Morozov (1871-1921). Indeed, for two years Fauvism was seen as the ultimate in avant-garde art: yet another reminder that Paris was truly the centre of world art. Thus the Fauvists became one of the groups of artists to benefit from scandal. Led by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), the group included Andre Derain (1880-1954), Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), Georges Rouault (1871-1958), Albert Marquet (1875-1947), Kees Van Dongen (1877-1968), and Othon Friesz (1879-1949).

How Cubism Got Its Name

Vauxcelles's role in christening Cubism is not quite so clear-cut. Prior to his show at Kahnweiler's gallery, Braque submitted several examples of his early Cubist paintings (landscapes) to the selection committee of the 1908 Salon d'Automne, a member of which - Henri Matisse - is said to have remarked critically that they consisted of "petits cubes". Moreover, according to the British art critic, Frank Rutter (1876-1937), the art dealer Leonce Rosenberg (1877-1947) had been present when Matisse made his remark and overheard the word "Cubisme" also being used. Nevertheless, Vauxcelle has become forever identified with how Cubism got its name. As it was, neither Braque nor Picasso were particularly enthusiastic about the name Cubism, and did not initially adopt it.

In 1911, Vauxcelles had a third success when he gave the name "Tubism" to the less well-known style of painting practised by Fernand Leger, another of the early Cubist painters and a member of the Ecole de Paris. Little is known about Vauxcelles's activities after World War I.

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