Today is the birthday (1882) of Georges Braque, a major 20th-century French painter, collagist, draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor — one of my all-time favorites. His most important contributions to the history of art were in his alliance with Fauvism from 1906, and the role he played in the development of Cubism. Braque’s work between 1908 and 1912 is closely associated with that of his colleague Pablo Picasso. Their respective Cubist works were in some cases indistinguishable.
Braque was born in Argenteuil, Val-d’Oise. He grew up in Le Havre and trained to be a house painter and decorator like his father and grandfather. However, he also studied artistic painting during evenings at the École des Beaux-Arts, in Le Havre, from about 1897 to 1899. In Paris, he apprenticed with a decorator and was awarded his certificate in 1902. The next year, he attended the Académie Humbert, also in Paris, and painted there until 1904. It was here that he met Marie Laurencin and Francis Picabia.
Braque’s earliest works were impressionistic, but after seeing the work exhibited by the artistic group known as the “Fauves” in 1905, he adopted a Fauvist style. The Fauves, a group that included Henri Matisse and André Derain among others, used brilliant colors to represent emotions. Braque worked most closely with the artists Raoul Dufy and Othon Friesz, who shared Braque’s hometown of Le Havre, to develop a somewhat more subdued Fauvist style. In 1906, Braque traveled with Friesz to L’Estaque, to Antwerp, and then home to Le Havre to paint.
In May 1907, he successfully exhibited works of the Fauve style in the Salon des Indépendants. The same year, Braque’s style began a slow evolution as he became influenced by Paul Cézanne who had died in 1906 and whose works were exhibited in Paris for the first time in a large-scale, museum-like retrospective in September 1907. The 1907 Cézanne retrospective at the Salon d’Automne greatly affected the avant-garde artists of Paris, resulting in the advent of Cubism.
Braque’s paintings of 1908–1913 reflected his new interest in geometry and simultaneous perspective. He conducted an intense study of the effects of light and perspective and the technical means that painters use to represent these effects, seeming to question the most standard of artistic conventions. In his village scenes, for example, Braque frequently reduced an architectural structure to a geometric form approximating a cube, yet rendered its shading so that it looked both flat and three-dimensional by fragmenting the image.
Beginning in 1909, Braque began to work closely with Picasso who had been developing a similar proto-Cubist style of painting. At the time, he was influenced by Gauguin, Cézanne, African masks, and Iberian sculpture while Braque was interested mainly in developing Cézanne’s ideas of multiple perspectives. The invention of Cubism was a joint effort between Picasso and Braque, then residents of Montmartre in Paris. These artists were the style’s main innovators. After meeting in October or November 1907, Braque and Picasso, in particular, began working on the development of Cubism in 1908. Both artists produced paintings of monochromatic color and complex patterns of faceted form, now termed Analytic Cubism.
A decisive time of its development occurred during the summer of 1911, when Braque and Picasso painted side by side in Céret in the French Pyrenees, each artist producing paintings that are difficult—sometimes virtually impossible—to distinguish from those of the other. In 1912, they began to experiment with collage and Braque invented the papier collé technique. French art critic Louis Vauxcelles used the terms “bizarre cubiques” in 1908 after seeing a picture by Braque. He described it as ‘full of little cubes’. The term ‘Cubism’, first used in 1911 with reference to artists exhibiting at the Salon des Indépendants, quickly gained wide use but Picasso and Braque did not adopt it initially. Art historian Ernst Gombrich described Cubism as “the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture—that of a man-made construction, a colored canvas.” The Cubist style spread quickly throughout Paris and then Europe.
The two artists’ productive collaboration continued and they worked closely together until the beginning of World War I in 1914, when Braque enlisted with the French Army. In May 1915, Braque received a severe head injury in battle at Carency and suffered temporary blindness. He was trepanned, and required a long period of recuperation.
Braque resumed painting in late 1916. Working alone, he began to moderate the harsh abstraction of cubism. He developed a more personal style characterized by brilliant color, textured surfaces, and—after his relocation to the Normandy seacoast—the reappearance of the human figure. He painted many still life subjects during this time, maintaining his emphasis on structure. One example of this is his 1943 work Blue Guitar. During his recovery he became a close friend of the cubist artist Juan Gris.
He continued to work during the remainder of his life, producing a considerable number of paintings, graphics, and sculptures. Braque, along with Matisse, is credited for introducing Picasso to Fernand Mourlot, and most of the lithographs and book illustrations he himself created during the 1940s and ’50s were produced at the Mourlot Studios. In 1962 Braque worked with master printmaker Aldo Crommelynck to create his series of etchings and aquatints titled “L’Ordre des Oiseaux” (“The Order of Birds”), which was accompanied by the poet Saint-John Perse’s text.
Braque died on 31 August 1963 in Paris. He is buried in the cemetery of the Church of St. Valery in Varengeville-sur-Mer, Normandy whose windows he designed.
Braque’s hometown, Le Havre, is a well-known fishing town in Normandy as these images attest (including a number of impressionist paintings by Monet who was a resident):
I did find a recipe for scallops Le Havre but could not discover what made them unique to Le Havre. Besides it was not particularly interesting. So, I have settled for a Normandy fish stew that I like. It’s a simple but creamy bouillabaisse.
Normandy Fish Stew
1 tbsp butter
2 leeks, cleaned and sliced
100g baby button mushrooms halved
150ml crème fraîche
4 fillets skin-on white fish
small bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Scrub and de-beard the mussels. Discard any that do not close when tapped.
Put the mussels and cider into a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cover. Cook for about 3 minutes or until the mussels have opened. Discard any that do not.
Drain the mussels by using a sieve lined with muslin over a bowl to strain out any sand.
Clean and dry the pan and place it on medium high heat. Melt the butter and sweat the leeks until soft. Add the mushrooms and cook 1-2 minutes longer.
Add the mussel broth and crème fraîche and simmer to reduce by half.
Add the fish and parsley, cover, and cook until the fish is just cooked through (time depends on the thickness of the fillets). Return the mussels to heat.
Serve in the pot at the table, with crusty French bread.