Derain infused London with color

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This extraordinary, vibrant painting makes a unity between what was seen by the artist and what he could not possibly have seen. The River Thames looked like that - and didn't look like that at all.

The painting is certainly of river and sky, barges and bridges, a train, a crane. Tower Bridge in the distance is an instantly recognizable silhouette. But the deep, saturated, liberated color is expressive and imaginative - it comes from the artist and not from the subject. If it belongs anywhere, it is in the south of France or even in the tropics - but certainly not in the foggy, industrialized English capital.

The young French artist André Derain visited London three times at the suggestion of his dealer, Ambroise Vollard, in the years 1906-07. Derain and friends Matisse and Vlaminck had been labeled fauves (wild beasts) at the 1905 Salon d'Automne in Paris; their paintings described as "an orgy of color." That color seems now to be more joy and exuberance than deliberate provocation. But it seemed provocative when first seen.

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In trying to analyze his aims, Derain wrote (in a letter to Matisse from London): "Expression is not in the object but in the means." He was encouraged in his escape from realism by paintings he saw in London by J.M.W. Turner, and even Hindu sculptures and Egypto-Roman embroideries.

It seems that before Derain could produce his apparently on-the-spot London paintings - there were eventually 30 of them - he had to distance himself from his subject. Recently, two sketchbooks from his London visits have come to light, and they suggest that his final paintings may have been created in the studio in Paris, using the linear sketches and notes he made at the scene as their rather skeletal basis.

An exhibition of Derain's work at London's Courtauld Institute (through Jan. 22) brings together sketches and paintings. In the painting shown here, the main features of the view are followed, but the canvas has more space and air in it, is less confusing than "real life."

It is as if the artist wanted his color - and the light and shadow it suggested - to predominate over the subject. In March 1906 he had written to Matisse that his trip had made him "more certain" of his ideas. He was encouraged to "make of the Thames something other than colored photographs." He definitely did.

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