André Derain

Still Life


Original title
Nature morte
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 885 x 1458 mm
Purchased with assistance from Cognac Courvoisier 1986

Display caption

In his work of this period Derain explored the traditions of past art. The unusual size and monumental quality of this painting can be seen as reflecting his interest in seventeenth-century Baroque still lifes. Especially notable, however, are the stark contrasts of black and white and the inclusion of drawing instruments, symbols of the artist's craft. These speak of Derain's belief that the definition of lit surfaces was central to drawing, and that light was a physical manifestation of the spirit. He once wrote, 'One constructs a painting with light ... light defines the dimensions of adjacent surfaces and directs the rhythm of their relationship.'

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

T04863 Still Life c.1938–43 Nature morte

Oil on canvas 885 × 1458 (34 7/8 × 57 3/8)
Inscribed ‘a. derain’ b.r.
Purchased from Stoppenbach and Delestre (Grant-in-Aid) with assistance from Cognac Courvoisier 1986
Prov: ...; anon. sale, Sotheby's 26 June 1985 (162, repr. in col.) bt Stoppenbach and Delestre
Exh: French 19th and 20th Century Paintings, Stoppenbach and Delestre, June–July 1986 (35, repr. in col., dated c.1942); André Derain, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, Dec. 1990–March 1991, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, March–May 1991, Musée d'art de la ville de Troyes, June–Sept. 1991 (29, repr. p.117); André Derain: Le peintre du ‘trouble moderne’, exh. cat., Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, Nov. 1994–March 1995 (170, dated c.1943, repr. p.257 in col.)
Lit: Terence Mullaly, ‘The Tate Takes a New Look at André Derain’, Daily Telegraph, 15 Dec. 1986, p.15, repr.; Tate Gallery Report 1986–8, p.71, repr. in col.; Jane Lee, ‘Derain's “The Painter and his Family”’, Burlington Magazine, vol.130, April 1988, p.287, repr.; Jane Lee, Derain, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, Oxford 1990, p.116, repr. p.117. Also repr. Peintres d'aujourd'hui: Les Maîtres, Collection Comoedia-Charpentier, Paris 1943, p.15; London Magazine, vol.32, Dec. 1992–Jan. 1993, p.105; André Derain: Le peintre du ‘trouble moderne’, exh. cat., Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris 1994, p.257, dated c.1943, repr. in col.

This table-top scene includes a brown decorated vase and a number of items relating to draughtsmanship: a marbled grey-green portfolio with its black ribbons untied; a wooden rule; a compass; a piece of black chalk or charcoal; a dark cream-coloured square which appears to be paper (although, conceivably, it may be a napkin); and, on the left, two dark cream pieces of semi-scrolled paper. The front and back edges of the brown table can just be discerned against the dark background. Vigorous brushwork, unrelated to the composition, can be detected when the painting is viewed in raking light. This is thought to indicate the presence of an earlier work abandoned by the artist, although X-rays taken by the Tate Gallery have failed to determine the nature of the underlying image. It was not uncommon, however, for Derain to re-use canvases: T03368, ‘Madame Derain in a White Shawl’, c.1919–20, for example, is painted over another composition.

Very little is known at present about the early history of T04863. The painting is undated, and its provenance prior to 1985 remains unclear. However, a photograph of the work was reproduced in a booklet, Peintres d'aujourd'hui: Les Maîtres, published as part of a series known as Collection Comoedia-Charpentier in June 1943, which can be taken as proof that the painting was completed by at least the early months of that year. This photograph suggests misleadingly that certain areas of the painting, notably the front edge and sides of the table, were much lighter than they now appear. While not entirely ruling out the possibility that Derain retouched the work after the photograph was taken, a Tate Gallery conservator is confident that all, or nearly all, the differences between the painting as it now is and the photograph reproduced in the 1943 publication can be explained by poor lighting at the time of photography, the use of old-style film stock, and the restoration and revarnishing of the painting in 1985.

However, it has proved difficult to ascertain exactly when Derain painted T04863. In conversation with the compiler on 5 August 1992, the artist's niece, Geneviève Taillade, said that she did not remember Derain painting the work (she was away from Paris during the war years) and knew nothing of its subsequent history. Furthermore, T04863 is unusual in Derain's oeuvre in both size and subject matter. In the 1994 Paris catalogue Jacqueline Munck notes that the format of the painting is unusual and, in her view, ‘borrowed from decorated door lintels of the eighteenth century and from allegories of the arts’ (p.257). The only other known painting by Derain with a similar theme of the artist's ‘métier’ as a draughtsman, is a small still life of 1908, which also includes a ribboned portfolio (‘Still Life’, repr. Derain, exh. cat., Arts Council 1967, p.37). With its stark composition and sombre mood, T04863 is markedly different from the majority of Derain's still lifes of the 1930s. These typically included sensuous elements of fruit, flowers and food in the manner of seventeenth-century Dutch and Spanish still life painting. Even in such predominantly black still lifes as ‘Still Life with Fish and Frying Pan’, c.1938 (Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Troyes, repr. Lee 1990, fig.75 in col.) and ‘Still Life with Fruit’, 1938 (Stanford University Museum of Art, repr. Lee 1990, p.78 in col.), there is an apparent informality of composition and delight in the decorative aspects of natural form that is absent in T04863. Derain was to return to this decorative manner of painting still lifes at the end of the war, using fluid, calligraphic white outlines on a black ground, as in ‘Still Life on Black Ground’, c.1945 (Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Troyes, repr. Lee 1990, p.117, no.30), and a rich collection of fruit and flowers, as in ‘Still Life with Fruit and Leaves’, c.1945 (Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Troyes, repr. ibid., no.31).

However, T04863 appears significantly similar in composition to one particular work of the late 1930s, ‘Still Life with Cherries’, 1938–9 (Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Troyes). Like T04863, this painting has stark tonal contrasts, with white napkins, illuminated from the left, set against an extremely dark ground; some of the objects appear to float or to be tipped towards the viewer in defiance of the laws of gravity and perspective; and the composition is based loosely on a rhombus shape, with an off-centre pinnacle provided by a tall jug and a napkin acting as an anchoring point. This compositional closeness suggests that it is possible that, though more ambitious in scale and painted in a bolder manner, T04863 may date back to the late 1930s. Certainly, Gaston Diehl, who knew Derain well in this period and edited the booklet Peintres d'aujourd'hui: Les Maîtres, believes that a date of 1938–9 is likely, not least because during the war years Derain was obliged to live in greatly reduced circumstances, and concentrated on wood engravings and making small sculptures (letter to compiler dated 16 October 1993). In fact, Derain executed during the war years a number of still lifes, as well as some portraits and landscapes, although most of these were modest in subject and size. However, given the inconclusive nature of the evidence to hand, it has been decided to date T04863 c.1938–43.

Prior to the war Derain and his immediate family (wife Alice, sister-in-law Suzanne Taillade, and niece Geneviève) lived in their country home at Chambourcy, which was about an hour's journey from Paris. With the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, they moved to his wife's cousin's house in the Pyrenees. In 1940 Derain and his wife spent some months in Paris, leaving briefly when the German army first occupied the city. At the end of October Derain returned to Chambourcy, where his house had been occupied by German soldiers. At first, Derain was allowed the use of two rooms, one in which to store his valuables and the other in which to work. However, he was unable to enter his library, in which were stored the paper and the tools he needed to complete work on woodcuts for Rabelais's Pantagruel, a commission he had received from the publisher Albert Skira in the late 1930s. Finding it impossible to work in these circumstances, Derain rented an apartment in Paris, and used a studio in the rue d'Assas in which he had occasionally worked from the mid-1930s. Eventually he obtained from Chambourcy the woodblocks, tools and paper he needed to continue work on Pantagruel, which was published in 1943 in an edition of 275. (Although many basic commodities were in short supply during the war, certain luxury goods, such as high quality art paper, were available and fine art editions continued to be published and sold.) In the light of her conversations with the artist's niece, Jane Lee (1990, p.116) believes that the instruments and paper shown in T04863 may have been those used by Derain in his work on the woodcuts for Rabelais's Pantagruel or for the series of lithographs commissioned by the printer Fernand Mourlot. At the very least, it seems likely, as Lee writes, that the objects shown in T04863 were ‘those close at hand in Derain's studio at a time when the majority of his works were on paper’. However, in conversation with the compiler, Geneviève Taillade was unable to provide any information about the brown vase in T04863. There had never been such a vase at Chambourcy, she said, though Derain may have acquired it during the war, and kept it in either his flat or studio in Paris.

Although Derain executed few works specifically related to the theme of draughtsmanship, he frequently addressed the subject of the work of the artist in numerous self-portraits (see following entry on T49230), and it is possible that T 04863 should be seen in the context of the artist's longstanding meditations about the nature of art. Jacqueline Munck writes, ‘Drawing instruments figure rarely in the still-lifes of the 1930s. One can perhaps see in this Derain's interest in the number “which penetrates the universe” and for the sciences, particularly astronomy. Certain elements - which recall ‘The Globe’ [1914, repr. Paris exh. cat., 1994, no.125 in col.] - proclaim the link between art and craft and the alchemy of the laboratories of the scientists of long ago’ (ibid., p.257). While Derain spoke freely about his ideas, he rarely published any statements: most contemporary texts about his approach to art were written by others, drawing on notes of interviews they had with him. Around 1920, however, Derain had attempted to formulate his views in notes for a treatise he called ‘De pictura rerum’, echoing the title of a tract by the ancient philosopher Lucretius. A recurring theme of this aphoristic, sometimes disjointed text, is the importance of light and shade in art. The mark made by a painter, Derain wrote, was light, and light had a direct relationship with spirit (see ‘Notes d'André Derain’, in Cahiers du Musée national d'art moderne, vol.5, Paris 1980, p.348). ‘Light’, he said, ‘is not a principle of imitation like illumination, but a means of construction which defines the dimensions of opposing surfaces and directs the rhythm of their relationship’ (ibid., p.357). In an interview of 1935, he was reported as saying that light ‘must not illuminate nor describe the content of a painting but emanate from it. Therefore, the real subject of a picture is the creation of light, the only material of painting’ (quoted ibid., p.346).

Derain was well-read in gnosticism, and his views on light, as well as the language he used, suggest a debt to mystic thought. Derain, it seems, related contrasts of light and dark in painting to the revelation of the interdependent realms of spirit and matter. Like many of the great seventeenth-century Dutch and Spanish still life painters, notably Zurbaran, Derain used still life as a vehicle through which to explore, and make manifest, the contrast between being and non-being implict in the play of light and shadow on objects. As early as 1921 the poet and leader of the French Dada group, André Breton, recorded Derain as speaking ‘with emotion’ about ‘the spot of white used by some seventeenth-century Flemish and Dutch painters of still life to give roundness to a vase or a fruit’. Derain claimed that this spot was ‘always mysteriously and admirably placed, yet they cannot actually have seen it. It has in fact no relation to the colour of the object or the brightness of the light, and nothing in the composition justifies it’ (quoted in Arts Council exh. cat., 1967, p.6).

Over his long career, Derain echoed, and subtly combined, many different schools and periods of past art. His conception of still life, however, was particularly influenced by the symbolically complex works by Dutch, Flemish and Spanish painters of the seventeenth century. He himself owned a fine, nearly monochrome painting of food and crockery by Clara Peeters (c.1594–c.1657), as well as a tightly compressed kitchen scene by Joachim Beuckelaer (1530–73), featuring a maid with carcasses and vegetables (both repr. Lee 1990, p.78). Lee writes, ‘The subject of this subtle genre of still life is the metaphysics of light. No other type of painting was so direct an exponent of metaphysics of the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Derain took up this tradition in his “black” still lifes of the mid-1930s’ (1990, pp.75–6). Derain once said that he adored Flemish art, adding ‘there is a bit of Fleming in me’ ([Denise Levy], ‘Propos d'André Derain’, Du, no.10, Oct. 1956, pp.30–1). The simple composition and stark contrasts of light and shade found in the still lifes of Francisco de Zurbaran (1598–1664) also seem relevant to T04863. However, Derain also greatly admired Chardin, and there is an echo of this eighteenth-century French master of still life in the smooth finish and translucence of the scrolls of paper (although their exaggerated curves have a bold almost baroque quality alien to the restraint of Chardin). Tightly scrolled sheets of paper appear in a number of Chardin's paintings on the theme of the attributes of the arts, sciences and music. Amongst the many objects symbolising art in ‘The Attributes of the Arts’ (Musée du Louvre, Paris, repr. Georges Wildenstein, Chardin, Paris 1933, pl.CXVI), for example, are scrolls of paper, books, instruments of drawing, a palette and an ornate pot or urn. Although unmistakeably modern in the manner of its execution, T04863 appears to be inspired in part by such earlier works.

Derain's attitude towards tradition in art was recorded by Gaston Diehl in a revealing text published in Peintres d'aujourd'hui: Les Maîtres (the same volume in which a photograph of T04863 was reproduced). Derain began with a statement which showed how far removed he was from the individualist aesthetic of modernism: ‘Nothing’, he said, ‘really belongs to us, neither our emotion nor our sensations, nor any of the facts provided for us by the natural world’ (p.9). Furthermore, he insisted that the cult of originality in art, with its associated notions of the importance of individuality and constant change, was merely a relatively recent, eighteenth-century invention. The outward forms of art might change, but the nature and purpose of art remained the same, as man himself retained essentially the same attitudes about himself and the world. Derain insisted that art had to be based on commonly understood themes and values: ‘If everyone began to speak a private language, no exchange, no conversation would be possible. A Chinese philosopher once said: “I do not innovate, I transmit”. He was a wise man’. Art was the ‘memory of generations’, and people were initiated into this ‘collective memory’ in museums.

The ideas expressed here were central to all of Derain's mature work, and were repeated by him in different forms before and after the war. However, this essay should also be seen perhaps in the context of the prevailing ideology of occupied France. Pessimistic about the modern world, and sceptical about the notions of innovation and revolution, Derain's artistic conservatism met with official approval during the Occupation, and the texts in Les Peintres d'aujourd'hui: Les Maîtres were, of course, passed by the censors. (In his letter to the compiler, Gaston Diehl wrote that this publication, which was printed in a small edition, had a only ‘limited and short-lived impact’, though the Galerie Charpentier was an important gallery in the period, and the weekly journal Comoedia had a large readership, and showed itself to be ‘courageous and fairly free’.) Along with the work of the other ‘modern masters’ represented in this book - Braque, Bonnard, Denis, Dufy, Friesz, Matisse, Rouault, Roussel, Dunoyer de Segonzac and Vlaminck - Derain's paintings were seen by many as embodying the great French tradition in art, which remained unchanged by the Occupation. In his postface to the volume, Pierre du Colombier, an art historian who specialised in German art and, according to Gaston Diehl, was of a ‘conservative spirit’, and ‘fairly hostile to contemporary art’, underscored this theme of political neutrality: the artists had all emphasised, he wrote, the need to concentrate on making good art, ignoring all other concerns; and he concluded with the famous quotation from Voltaire, ‘Il faut cultiver son jardin’ (ibid., p.36). For Derain and many of the other artists represented in this volume, this apolitical vision of art and its purposes did not signify a sudden change of outlook: as the art historian Sarah Wilson has written, ‘The official face of artistic life in occupied Paris extending to the salons and the beaux-arts policy makers embraced a formal academicism that had been forecast by trends increasingly apparent in the 1930s’ (‘Collaboration in the Fine Arts 1940–1944’, in Collaboration in France, Hirschfeld and Marsh eds., 1989, p.103).

However, a striking aspect of T04863 is the boldness with which paint has been applied. Although the painting's subject matter is overtly traditional, and its mood sombre, certain areas of the work appear to have been painted quickly and with a broad brush. Single, thick brushstrokes serve to indicate the black chalk/charcoal, as well as the projecting part of the rule. The left-hand corner of the flat piece of paper ends in uneven, and noticeably blunt, brushstrokes, while brown underpainting shows through the brushwork of the scrolled sheets. Furthermore, while the presence of the compass and rule suggests the theme of draughtsmanship, the painting exhibits curious discrepancies of scale and perspective. The bottom edge of the vase is far from a perfect ellipse; and, in homage, perhaps, to the painter Paul Cézanne and his use of shifting perspective, the brown rule does not continue in a straight line behind the vase. A stick-like shape, which may or may not be part of the rule, appears to float above the portfolio, the back edge of which is longer than the near edge in a curious reversal of traditional perspective. Indeed, all the objects on the right side of the painting appear strangely tipped forwards towards the viewer. The ‘incorrect’ perspective, simplified tonal contrasts, and deliberate awkwardnesses in draughtsmanship found in Derain's work have been seen by some modern critics as indications of the artist's questioning approach to the traditions of art. In an article illustrated by T04863, the painter and critic Merlin James, for example, commented on Derain's ‘opening up’ of traditional illusionism:

Highlights are placed onto forms with an artificial deliberateness, tonal gradations are fractionally jumpy, forms are modelled with a slight simplification, notation is abbreviated and accents emphasised. There is an element of self-consciousness, in other words, which qualifies the rapprochement with tradition. Yet importantly, this art that reveals art is not ironic parody. Derain's knowingness about the rhetoric he adopts - his leaving aside of the painterly mechanism of illusion - is an attempt not to undermine, but to more honestly recommend, a faith both in the reality the picture depicts and in the whole tradition of mimetic art.

(‘Studying Art's Form’, London Magazine, vol.32,
Dec. 1992–Jan. 1993, pp.104–6)

As mentioned earlier, it has proved impossible to trace the provenance of T04863 prior to its sale at auction in 1985. The painting was accredited to a private collector in the 1943 publication, but nothing is known about this collector. The records of the Galerie Renou et Colle, perhaps the main, but not sole, dealers in Derain's works in the late 1930s and early 1940s, show that the painting did not pass through their hands. In his letter to the compiler, Gaston Diehl wrote that it was likely that the Galerie Charpentier chose to reproduce T04863 either ‘because it owned this canvas or because it belonged to a collector whom the gallery wished to please’. As reported in the 1985 auction catalogue, Michel Kellerman will include this work in a forthcoming volume of his catalogue raisonné of Derain's paintings, but he, too, has been unable to throw light on the past history of this painting.

At some unknown date, T04863 has been restretched, possibly at the same time as a wax lining was added to the back of the canvas. Small strips of wood were added to the sides of what might be presumed to be the original stretcher, increasing its size to 898 × 1468 mm. This had the effect of bringing the tacking edges of the original canvas to the front surface. It is not clear why this was done, but it might have been an attempt to compensate for a loss of paint at the former edges of the canvas. Although it is possible that Derain himself authorised the change in the painting's dimensions, it seems unlikely: the newly visible edges of the canvas revealed that the corners of the sheets of paper at the two sides of the painting had not been brought to a point - the corner of the paper on the right was cut off bluntly, while the scroll on the left did not quite end, even with the newly visible strip. To restore the painting to its original sight size, as well as to hide the areas of paint loss on the old tacking edges, quarter inch wooden slips have been inserted between the frame and the painting by the Tate Gallery's Conservation Department.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996