Albert Marquet is quite possibly one of the most intriguing artists of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Little known outside his native France, a retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris allows us to rediscover a painter who, despite evolving during the epoch of Post Impressionism and Fauvism, remained largely indefinable.
Marquet spent his professional life travelling between Paris and the Mediterranean, with landscape and water his favourite motifs. Although mostly indifferent to contemporary artistic debates he maintained a few characteristics from Fauvism, notably a simplification of form, dominance of colour and an appearance of rapid improvisation. The exhibition traces the development of his unique style and gradual move to a focus on a few key themes.
Born in 1875 in Bordeaux, Marquet moved to Paris at the age of 15 to study drawing at the Ecole National des Arts Décoratifs. Here he met both Henry Manguin, a future Fauve, and Henri Matisse who would become a lifelong friend. The three later studied together under the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau at the Beaux Arts .
Life drawing and the study of old masters underpinned the academic system of the time but Marquet’s individual approach is already apparent in Nu dit ‘fauve’ (Fauve Nude), 1898, in which a model is shown standing upright in three quarter back view surrounded by students in Manguin’s studio. The subject may be academic but the vivid colouring and divisionist brushstrokes in the manner of Signac already anticipate Fauvism.
Marquet continued using models in his studio on the Quai Saint Michel but was soon turning his back on the bright colours of Fauvism, instead using light to reveal the body as graceful and harmonious. He avoids detail for an overall impression of the figure with the face often hidden as in Nu à contre jour (Nude in backlight), 1909. The effect is to heighten the erotic element of the nude, a trait which became increasingly prevalent when his favourite model, Yvonne, became his lover. The subject matter is no longer purely a study of form, it is an overt depiction of desire. In Nu au divan (Nude on a Divan) 1912, Yvonne, with a velvet collar around her neck and arms behind her head stares insolently out at the viewer.
Outside of the studio, the early years of the twentieth century saw Marquet painting with Matisse in the Paris suburb of Arcueil and the Luxemburg Gardens. Taking inspiration from his friend, Marquet soon developed what was to become ‘his’ style of landscape – a cube (a house, a cathedral or some other building), a vertical (a chimney, streetlamp or tree), and a diagonal (a towpath, an embankment, the wash of a river) for creating depth. He continued to use space in this way all his life.
This period also saw the appearance in his work of pure colour laid on in directional brush strokes in the manner of Cezanne. Vivid shades of yellow, green and red saturate the canvas, eradicating traditional perspective. These were the most ‘Fauve’ works he ever painted but already we see his interest in urban and industrial settings with factories, streetlamps, river barges and locks all beginning to feature.
1906 saw a visit to Normandy with Raoul Dufy, a native of Le Havre. The two had much subject matter in common – boats decked with pennants, Bastille Day celebrations and posters – but where Dufy favoured lively brushstrokes and bold use of colour Marquet preferred a more restrained, but in its own way equally daring, use of colour. In Plage de Fécamp (Fécamp Beach), 1906, which features a rare use of well defined figures in the foreground, two uniformed sailors sit contemplating a beach, its greyish lilac tones emanating serenity.
Le Havre itself proved the greatest interest to Marquet. For him ports were the emblem of modernity, as stations had been for the Impressionists, and he turned them into modern living landscapes juxtaposing smoke from tugs and steam from vessels with busy wharfs and the spikes of cranes. Wherever he travelled, be it Hamburg, Naples or Stockholm, he would seek out the same themes.
In Paris he was again drawn to water. His moves to studios on the Quai des Grands Augstins in 1905 and the Quai Saint Michel in 1908 meant that two views dominated his output; the view downstream to the embankments, bridges and the Louvre and upstream to Notre Dame. His Notre Dame paintings owe a clear debt to Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series which Marquet had likely seen when they were exhibited in Paris in 1904. The same scene is depicted over and over again, most frequently in misty or snowy weather, shrouding the cathedral in grey and blurring the details until they are little more than a ghostly outline.
His paintings of the quais again favour a palette of greys, blacks and dirty whites. When the sun does make an appearance, as in Quai de Louvre, soleil d’hiver, 1905 it is depicted as searing a burning hole into the top left hand corner of the painting, almost as if the artist resents its presence.
Interconnections between the elements of water, air and earth also interested Marquet and in the 1920s and 30s beaches provided the ideal location to explore this, sometimes intercut with mountains or greenery in the background. The effect of light and ebb and flow of the tide offered the perfect opportunity to include decorative shapes and unexpected colours as in Tempête à La Goulette (Storm at La Goulette) ,1926 which uses greyish shades of lilac, green and yellow in sensually organic curves to conjure the impression of a storm.
Marquet had spent time in Algiers in the 1920s and was forced to return in the 1940s when his overt anti-Nazism made it unwise to remain in Paris. On his earlier visit he had shown little interest in Moorish architecture or vegetation, save for the odd depiction of a mosque or palm tree – a visit to Tangiers in 1911 had led him to declare to Matisse that he would never be an orientalist – but once again the ports and bays proved the redeeming feature. An endlessly renewing spectacle, the merchant port of the 1920s gave way to the military boats of the 40s with Marquet’s patriotism subtly evidenced in the discreet presence of a tricolor.
The view from a window is a centuries old motif and from the early 1930s Marquet had begun to deliver his own take on this. Landscape played second fiddle, blurred to an almost indistinguishable haze. Instead the focus is on a flowerpot or an easel to add colour. He is also one of the few artists who has taken the window as a subject in its own right. In one of his very last paintings, Persienne Verte (Green Shutters), 1945-6, he returns to the vivid colours of his youth as he portrays the light subtly intruding through a pair of verdantly green wooden shutters. Perhaps the subtlest hint of his earliest Fauve leanings, but remaining, to the end, entirely indefinable.
Albert Marquet Peintre Du Temps Perdu is on until August 21st 2016 at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris , 11, avenue du Président Wilson , 75116 Paris, Tel: +33 (0)1 53 67 40 00