Primitivism as an Effective Method of Depicting Nature


At the end of the nineteenth century, many artists became increasingly interested in the so-called primitivism art – paintings and sculpture of the societies that were  inferior to Europe in terms of their economic and industrial development. The artists paid much attention to the traditions of Asian art and admired the simplicity of African artistic traditions. This interest resulted in the growing role of primitivism in the avant-garde art of Europe that was clearly present in the works of Gauguin, Matisse, the Fauves, and others. This paper will analyze the following three paintings – Paul Gauguin’s The Red Cow (1889), Henri Matisse’s Goldfish (1912), and Paysage coloré aux oiseaux aquatiques (1907) by Jean Metzinger, one of the most prolific representatives of  Fauvism.  It attempts to prove that these artists employed primitivism to show the importance of unspoiled nature and urge the audiences to study the surrounding world without stereotypes imposed by the industrial and commercial age.

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The roots of the interest in the “primitive” cultures that changed the art of the late nineteenth century are deep in the Romanticism that played an important role in the Europe in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. Artists and writers were fascinated with faraway lands, such as Africa or East Asia. Although they defined the inhabitants of these places as “savages”, they simultaneously admired their unique combination of naturalism and exoticness (Flam, Deutch, & Einstein, 2003). This tendency intensified at the end of the nineteenth century but took a different shape. Accordingly, the artists began to borrow the features of “primitive” art that originated from these distant and less developed societies and employ them in their attempts to show the true nature of the world. They significantly simplified forms and shapes, used bright and even colors, and almost rejected the traditional understanding of perspective. All these elements that were initially typical of the African and Japanese art became the tools that had the power to return a viewer to the “pure” feelings about nature and everything related to it(Flam, Deutch, & Einstein, 2003).  Gauguin, Matisse, and others believed that such methods would allow them to eliminate the metaphoric layers of stereotypes that corrupted the human perception of nature. According to the painters, industrialized societies, including developed European counties, lost their ability to see the things without the filters of civilization (Van der Grijp, 2013). “A diverse and changing movement, primitivism was characterized by a rejection of canonic Western art, perceived as inauthentic, and by its quest for regenerative inspiration in alternative expressions, perceived as being truer because simpler and freer” (Staszak, 2004, p. 353). Therefore, only “primitive” art could rekindle this ability and bring new unspoiled perspectives that were crucial for the revival of the abandoned culture.

One can observe all the above-mentioned tendencies in Gauguin’s work titled The Red Cow. It does not depict the Tahitian exotic nature and people – though it is the most renowned feature of his artistic heritage – –, but a typical landscape at the south of France. However, the painter widely applied the main principles of primitivism in terms of perspective, colors, and other important elements. Although it is obvious that a woman is located closer to the viewer than a cow, behind which there is a rich summer landscape, the perspective is almost absent here. Everything looks quite flat and only slightly modeled at some places. This approach allows Gauguin to demonstrate how an individual perceives  such sunlit day as this one. Moreover, the way he unexpectedly cuts the heads of the woman and the cow reflects that in the reality people do not see nature in the manner the representatives of the previous epochs, such as the Renaissance and classicism, show on their perfect and polished paintings. From a certain perspective, this masterpiece by Gauguin looks more realistic than some photograph-quality representation of landscapes. Additionally, the artist is mainly focused here on the usage of pure colors and tries to make them as bright as possible. For example, to the left of the fence, there is a large pool of purple flowers with the massive orange bushes in the middle. These complementary colors intensify one another and produce a really strong impression on the viewer. In this manner, Gauguin shows that primitivism approach can portray the nature in the maximum expressive and unbiased way.

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Another painting where the role of primitivism is crucial in depicting nature is Goldfish by Henri Matisse. It is worth mentioning that these fish are also the borrowing from the “exotic” cultures that appeared in  Europe as a result of close interaction with East Asia. They were also very popular in Northern Africa that Matisse often visited (Wright, 2004). In general, the subject matter of this painting looks quite simple – a glass tank with the fish on the chair that stands in front of some flowers. However, in this context, the issue of observing and most importantly perceiving nature is the top priority. Matisse offers the audience to watch the fish in the tank and admire their forms as well as colors that is so difficult to do in a frantic industrialized age when everyone is rushing somewhere. These fish are simple, primitive, yet extraordinarily beautiful. The painter communicates this message to the audience via a number of artistic methods. Matisse as well as Gauguin in the previous painting also uses complementary colors – reds and greens, yellows and blues. He also employs a very creative perspective allowing the viewers to see the fish from two angles simultaneously. In general, for Matisse, these fish are the embodiment of pure nature that arises from the ashes in the times of modernization. They also function as a symbol of the paradise lost – the true and deep connection between people and nature that the advent of a new epoch partially destroyed (Wright, 2004).

Being a dominating artistic movement present in the artistic heritage of Henri Matisse and André Derain, positivism was very important for the Fauves. One of the representatives of fauvism, Jean Metzinger, also paid close attention to the depiction of nature in his works. His painting Paysage coloré aux oiseaux aquatiques shows some tropical landscape with three birds, lush plants and, a body of water with mountains in the distance. He uses elongated brushstrokes that highlight the work of the painter rather than hide the meaning as he intended earlier. The artist is fascinated with the beauty of exotic nature that is simultaneously simple and complex. The animals at the painting are absolutely free of the civilization impact, but, at the same time, they are able to enjoy a large variety of extraordinary plants and other animals. It is also symbolic that Metzinger depicts birds that have always been considered the symbols of freedom (Benjamin, 1993). This painting is a metaphoric representation of the future that awaits human beings if they return “back to the basics”.

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All things considered, primitivism was a powerful tool in depicting nature. The representatives of this movement, such as Gauguin, Matisse, Metzinger and others, were free and unspoiled by civilization. For primitivists, such interpretation of the world made them closer to ingenuous cultures. This vision of nature was drastically different from the traditional approaches common during the previous epochs. It highlighted the beauty of the surrounding world with the purpose to make people perceive it without any filters imposed by the modern world.

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