Vlaminck is often portrayed as the most unruly painter of the fauve school, an impression that reflects both on his personality (as it is revealed in his biography and writings) and his work. A self-taught artist, Vlaminck insisted that painting should be the unmediated expression of an artist's temperament, "emotive, tender, ferocious, as natural as life itself."  Indeed, having been an anarchist sympathizer during the prewar period, he would later link the strident colorism and bold brushwork of his work to social and political dissent, a connection that was actually made by several art critics.  In this regard, Vlaminck is largely responsible for the essential myth of fauvism as an audaciously undisciplined, spontaneous, or emotive style.
Careful examination of Vlaminck's work shows, instead, that in 1905-1906 he was a brilliantly intuitive student of Van Gogh and Gauguin, whose works had been the subject of various important exhibitions in Paris at that time. It was a Van Gogh exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1901 to which Vlaminck himself credited his preoccupation with color, although his work did not fully develop the implications of Van Gogh's style until 1905, after Vlaminck had been exposed to the new paintings that Matisse and Derain had brought back from their trip to the south of France.  Under the impact of their progress, Vlaminck's work exploded with pure color and broad strokes of paint.
Both Derain and Vlaminck lived in Chatou, a suburb of Paris in the Seine valley, and they began painting together there—as well as in other towns along the river—in 1900, at which time they rented a studio on the Ile-de-Chatou. The two artists had grown up in and around Chatou, a fairly quiet, picturesque spot that had been spared the kind of industrial activity that had recently influenced the character of other nearby towns such as Argenteui.  In 1901, Derain entered military service, thus ending a fifteen-month partnership that would only be resumed in 1904. During the fauve years, Vlaminck and Derain painted many of the same sites, including views of and from the pont de Chatou, an old railroad bridge. Vlaminck in particular much preferred the suburban landscape to the sites of Paris (which, in general, did not occupy fauve painting), and his images of Chatou were personal paeans to familiar ground.
Tugboats on the Seine is a brilliant example of Vlaminck's most accomplished fauve manner. Executed with broad, loose but loaded, densely accumulated brushstrokes, the surface of the picture teems with a calligraphic energy that typifies fauve painting, and is a special hallmark of Vlaminck's manner. This effect is heightened by the absence of shadows; the use of pure colors throughout the composition allows all areas of the image to occupy the picture plane with equal weight. Unlike Matisse and Derain, Vlaminck did not employ a mixed technique, and the uniformity of his brushstrokes serves, on a secondary level, to unify his work.
Tugboats on the Seine can be closely compared to other paintings of the river by Vlaminck from 1905 and 1906, such as The Seine at Chatou (Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection), which shows both a remorqueur, or tugboat, and sailboats. The Washington painting is distinguished, however, by its decidedly unpicturesque composition: the tugboat approaching from the right is a cropped intrusion, and the artist has omitted strong, vertical foreground elements such as trees or the pier of the bridge, which, in related works, serve to frame the composition and clarify the definition of middle ground and background space. Vlaminck carries the coloration of the tugboats, which were painted with blue, white, and red bands, into the water. As a reflection, this effect lends a degree of naturalism to the painting, an element that often distinguishes Vlaminck's work from that of Derain and Matisse; the result, however, also evokes the French national colors, or tricolore, an impression that is essentially abstract.
(Text by Jeffrey Weiss, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000) Notes
1. Maurice Vlaminck, Portraits avant décès (Paris, 1955), 52.2. See the discussion of Vlaminck in Ellen C. Oppler, Fauvism Reexamined (New York, 1976), 348—359.3. John Elderfield, The "Wild Beasts": Fauvism and Its Affinities [exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art] (New York, 1976), 30.4. John Klein, "New Lessons from the School of Chatou: Derain and Vlaminck in the Paris Suburbs," in Judi Freeman, ed., The Fauve Landscape [exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art] (Los Angeles, 1990), 128—129.