“For a moment, Derain sat down and placed his hand against his chest. The massiveness of his head, the thick strong hands, the slow curving volume of his body gave monumentality to the living Derain. There was grandiloquence in his manner.” Alexander Liberman from Andre Derain in North American Collections (Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, 1982).
Andre Derain was born in Chaton on the outskirts of Paris, the son of a successful pastry cook. From 1898 to 1899 he studied at the Academie Carriere meeting Matisse and in 1900, Vlaminck. After a spell in the army, Derain participated in the Salon d’Automne in which his Fauvist portrait of Matisse first appeared. By 1907 he had started working in the Cubist idiom but four years later his style was becoming influenced by Byzantine art and African art. He exhibited at the influential Armory Show in 1913 in which he sold two out of his three pictures, including ‘The Window on the Park’ (later titled ‘Window at Vers’) to John Quinn a wealthy New Yorker. In 1916 he had his first one-man show at the Galerie Paul Guillaume in Paris and was gaining a strong reputation.
In the 1920s he favoured the work of the Old Masters and produced landscapes, portraits and still-lifes in a surprisingly conservative fashion considering his avant-garde roots. He only had one individual show in Europe at the Brummer Gallery in 1922 but he continued to work prolifically and in 1928 won the Carnegie Prize for his ‘Still-life with Dead Game’ (c.1918) at the 27th Annual Carnegie International. A decade later, when Germany occupied France, his work escaped destruction, and was seen as upholding the classical tradition instead. He was thus put to work helping the Nazis prepare propaganda material. After the war he worked in theatre designing sets and costumes.
As a result of his involvement with the Nazis during the war, the French eyed Derain with suspicion. Controversy, however, dogged most of his career. In 1931, for example the periodical, Les chroniques du jour published an article entitled ‘Andre Derain: Pour ou Contre’. Certain critics feel he never quite fulfilled his early promise, while others see his work as a reconfiguring of many elements of French art history into something new and distinctive.