Louis Valtat's artistic career began during a period marked by an emergence of different styles and movements. By the mid 1880s, Impressionism had entered into the so-called period of “crisis” leading to a new and revolutionary wave of ideas, which would ultimately shape early twentieth century art, namely Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism. As far as Valtat was concerned, he remained detached from Expressionism and Cubism, most likely due to his independent nature and mild temperament. On the other hand, while his intensely colored paintings produced before 1900, were regarded as the precursors of the Fauvist movement, Valtat is not universally recognized as a Fauvist painter. Today there is an ongoing discussion of whether Valtat should be regarded as a “Fauve,” or was he only on the fringe of the Fauvist circle. If Fauvism is defined as a pictorial expression to create space and light through the use of intense colors, then Valtat was most certainly a Fauve. If Fauvism freed those artists from the pictorial conventions established since the Renaissance and allowed them to create a style of their time, then Valtat was also a Fauvist. However, as noted by Raymond Cogniat “he is not a Fauve, if the label covers painters who intensified these claims to a maximum of violence, and from which they were later to rid themselves and revert to more moderate ideas.” (Louis Valtat, Neuchâtel, Ides et calends, 1963, pg. 25)
Valtat painted a wide variety of subjects that included genre scenes, marine, landscapes, and still life. It was only after his death in 1952 that this artist was “rediscovered,” and his art widely appreciated. Like other artists of that period, Valtat may have been overshadowed by “such giants as Matisse, Roualt, Picasso, Braque and Léger,” on the other hand, “during his lifetime, he attracted the attention of connoisseurs rather than the universal recognition which he should legitimately have shared with his more famous contemporaries.” (Cogniat, pgs. 19, 20) One such connoisseur was Ambroise Vollard, the famous art dealer, who had said about Valtat: “Patience, one day you will see that Valtat is a great painter.” (Musée des beaux-arts Besançon, Valtat et ses amis: Albert André, Charles Camoin, Henri Manguin, Jean Puy, Modern Art Foundation, Oscar Ghez, Genève, Jacqueline Bretegnier-André, Paris, Musée des beaux-arts, Besançon, août-septembre, 1964, pg. 9)
Louis Valtat was born in Dieppe, in the Normandy region of France on August 8, 1869 into a wealthy family of ship owners. He spent much of his childhood in Versailles, a suburb of Paris, where he attended secondary school at the Lycée Hoche. Encouraged by his father, an amateur landscape painter himself, Valtat became interested in art, and at the age of seventeen decided to pursue an artistic career. In 1887, he moved to Paris, where he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts), and studied with the well known academic artists Gustave Boulanger (1824-1888), Jules Lefebvre (1836-1911), and later with Benjamin Constant (1845-1902).
Afterward, Valtat studied at the Académie Julian (Julian Academy) under Jules Dupré (1811-1889), a landscape painter of the Barbizon school. His fellow students included Albert André (1869-1954), who became a close friend, as well as Maurice Denis (1870-1943), Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), who, at that time, were members of the Nabis movement. Calling themselves “Nabis” after the Hebrew word meaning prophets, they were influenced by Paul Gauguin’s (1848-1903) innovative Synthetist method of painting based on the use of simple forms, lines, pure colors, and large patterns. While Valtat remained detached form this movement, he learned through them the Gauguin method of painting, a method that would influence his works at a later stage.
After winning the Jauvin d’Attainville prize in 1890, Valtat set up his own studio at rue La Glaciere in Paris. In 1893, he made his debut at the Salon of Independent Artists with a number of paintings depicting street scenes of the neighborhood surrounding his studio. One of these paintings entitled Sur Le Boulevard (On The Boulevard, 1893) caught the attention of Felix Fénéon, the art critic. During this early period in his career, Valtat was particularly drawn to the spontaneous light touches of Impressionism and the colorful dots or points commonly known as Pointillism. Two examples representative of his work during this period include Péniches (Barges, 1892) and Pommiers (The Apple Trees, 1894). As explained by Cogniat, Péniches “has the typical impressionistic rendering of the mobile reflections of rippling water,” while Pommiers “is alive with the dazzling brilliance of sunlit reds and yellows intensified by the stippled strokes of green.”
At the end of 1894, Valtat collaborated with Henri Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1911) and his friend André on the set of Aurélien-François Lugné-Poë’s play Chariot de terre cuite (The Terracotta Chariot), performed at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre (Oeuvre Theatre) in Paris. At that time, Valtat began to suffer from tuberculosis and traveled to Banylus in the South of France to recuperate. There he met a number of artists including Georges-Daniel de Monfried (1856-1929), a friend of Gaugin, and Aristide Maillol (1861-1944), who was just turning his attention to sculpture. In 1895, he visited Spain, and then returned to continue his convalescence in the South of France in Arcachon.
While in Arcachon, Valtat produced numerous paintings with intense colors, which he exhibited at the 1896 Salon of Independent Artists. These works were once again noticed by Fénéon, who mentioned them in a review in La Revue Blanche. In addition, Thadée Natanson, founder of La Revue Blanche, reviewed the 1896 Salon and stated that Valtat’s studies represented: “… A fascinating sight and promising talents…,” and he remarked that Valtat used “…Very few pure shades.” And that his paintings were “… Much more striking” (Louis-André Valtat, “Louis Valtat (1869-1952),” Louis Valtat and Fauvism, online at http://www.valtat.com/fauvismeuk.htm) While these intensely colored paintings reflected a spontaneity that was reminiscent of Impressionism, Valtat seems to have been determined to define the shape of the object rendered. Influenced by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and Gauguin, he painted large areas with vivid colors, and applied thick brushstrokes onto the canvas. Another typical example of this new approach is Tulipes et Narcisses (Tulips and Narcissus, 1898) in which (Cogniat, pg. 24):
“Valtat’s brushwork is no longer just a series of light touches; it is more determined, graphically outlining and shaping the subject. The technique has developed from a spontaneous juxtaposition of delicate touches inspired by light and reflections into quite the reverse, and the structure is now deliberately put in evidence. This is perhaps the first stage at which one can see Valtat completely severed from Impressionism and beginning to foreshadow Fauvism for which he helped lay the foundation.”
From 1898 until 1914, Valtat began to spend more time in the South of France. He traveled with his girlfriend, Suzanne whom he married in 1900. At first, they went to Agay, a small fishing village, and then to Anthéor, on the coast between St. Raphael and Cannes, where he built a house. While in the South of France, he continued to broaden his contacts with other artists in the area, such as Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and Paul Signac (1863-1935). Between 1900 and 1905, Valtat visited Renoir in his house in Cagnes, and together they collaborated on several works, most importantly a bust of Cézannes in bronze (1905). During this time, Valtat traveled in France and abroad. In the spring and summer time, he used to go to Port-En-Bessin in Arromanches, and Ouistreham in the Normandy region. Valtat also visited Italy in 1902 and Algeria in 1903. These trips, and in particular, his stay at Anthéor with its rocks, sky and Mediterranean sea inspired Valtat to use the intense red and blue colors, which became part of his palette.
It was Renoir who introduced Valtat’s works to Ambroise Vollard, the art dealer. When they were in Brittany, Renoir had told Vollard “when I saw a young artist one day, putting the last touches to a study. I was struck by the happy harmony of colour throughout his painting.” (Ambroise Vollard, Recollections of a Picture Dealer, translated by Violet M. Macdonald, Boston: Little, Brown and company, 1936, pg. 197) Vollard became Valtat’s agent from 1900 to 1912. He organized Valtat’s first one-man exhibition at his gallery just after that of Matisse, and sent Valtat’s entries to various exhibitions that were held in Paris. In 1905, Valtat’s paintings were shown at the Salon d’Autumne (Autumn Salon), the exhibition during which the journalist Louis Vauxcelles coined the label Fauves (“Wild Beasts”). After noticing a Renaissance-style small bronze sculpture set in the middle of the gallery surrounded by intensely colored paintings, Vauxcelles remarked: Donatello au milieu des fauves (“Donatello among the wild beasts”). (Sam Hunter, John Jacobus, and Daniel Wheeler, Modern Art, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1992, pg.102) The exhibition caused a scandal, and some journalists dubbed this new approach as “color madness,” and “pictorial aberration.” Interestingly, a marine scene by Valtat was reproduced alongside Matisse, Henri Manguin (1874-1949), André Derain (1880-1954), and Jean Puy (1876-1960) in the exhibition review by Vauxcelles in L’Ilustration magazine dated 4 November, 1905, “in which the term ‘Fauve’ was first used.” (Lynn Boyer Ferrillo, “Valtat, Louis,” Grove Art Online Dictionary)
In 1914, Valtat left Anthéor and resided in Paris at l’avenue Wagram, close to the Arc de Triomphe and the Bois de Boulogne. However, after ten years, he missed having a garden, and bought a house with a garden in Choisel, a little village in the Vallé de Chevreuse, where he spent most of the year. His garden, and the flowers and fruits that he planted there, became the principal sources of inspiration for his paintings. At that time, his compositions became calmer, without, changing his characteristic intense color palette. For example, La Plage (The Beach, 1916) and Le Champ de blé (The Wheat Field, 1920) have been described as “peaceable and luminous works,” and in which his technique “tended to do away with shade altogether, in order to give each volume its maximum chromatic intensity and radiance,” and “as with Impressionism, black was excluded from his palette, and his warm colour tones were juxtaposed without discordance.” (Cogniat, pg. 29)
In 1927, Valtat was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor), which was considered the premier order of France. He continued to paint, and “right up to his last years, Valtat respected this fidelity to his inner self and became practised in resisting the numerous temptations of the period. He was deterred neither by the success of other artists, nor by his own rather tardy ascent. ” (Cogniat, pg, 29) On the contrary, he was always devoted to his work and “From the beginning to the end of his career, he was simply, both knowingly and scrupulously, a painter of great integrity whose love of life and nature were embodied in his landscapes, his flower-pieces and interiors.” (Cogniat, pg. 24) After the exodus of 1940 and the occupation of France by the Germans, Valtat hardly left his studio at l’avenue Wagram. He began to suffer from glaucoma that made him blind in 1948, and after becoming ill, Valtat died on January 2, 1952 in a clinic in Paris.
His works can be seen in the following museums: Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (Russia); Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse, Musée des Beaux Art, Bordeaux (France); Museum of Modern Art, New York City, Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach (US); Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid (Spain)
Louis Valtat biogaphical information courtesy the Rehs Gallery www.rehs.com New York