Born in Dieppe on 8th August 1869 Louis Valtat was to become one of the pre-eminent painters of the Post-Impressionist period. His style was of the expressive, Van Gogh-influenced variety of Post-Impressionism, as opposed to the more decorative style of Bonnard and Matisse. His early Fauvist coastal scenes are considered his greatest achievements.
Since Valtat’s death, his fame has grown steadily and the market for his beautiful paintings widens constantly, justifying the prediction Vollard made to him when he signed a contract with him in 1900: “Patience, one day people will see that you are a great painter.” Bonnard, who owned one of Valtat’s most sumptuous still lifes, was of the same opinion; as was Renoir, who admired his color harmony, and Monet who described him as the beginning of a new state of grace in painting.
When Louis was aged 17 in 1886 (the year when Vincent Van Gogh arrived in Paris for the first time) he applied for admission to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where his illustrious teachers were to be Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre, and later Benjamin Constant. Winner of the Jauvin d’Attainville prize in 1890, he took a studio in the Rue de La Glacière in Paris. The first paintings he entered for the Salon des Artistes Indépendants in 1893 were scenes of the daily life in the surrounding streets. At the Beaux-Arts his association began with a long list of artists: Matisse, Marquet, Vuillard, Bonnard, Albert André, Maillol, Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac and Renior are the artists Valtat knew and counted as his friends.
Around this time, Louis Valtat began to suffer from tuberculosis and he went down to Banyuls on the Mediterranean coast. In 1895, continuing his convalescence in Arcachon, Louis Valtat painted numerous canvases in very violent tones. These paintings were the forerunners of Fauvism, the movement that created a scandal ten years later at the Salon d’Automne of 1905. A group exhibition was organised by Paul Signac at the famous Durand Ruel Gallery in March 1899, where Valtat exhibited twenty canvases, fifteen of which were shown under the heading Notations d’Agay, 1899. He had in fact been spending autumn and winter in the south since 1898 with his future wife Suzanne, whom he married in 1900. They first went to Agay, a small fishing village close to Saint Raphaël, and then to Anthéor, a few kilometres farther away. And it was also in 1900 that, on the advice of Renoir, Ambroise Vollard made an agreement with Valtat, buying practically all his work for the next ten years.
During their stays at Anthéor, the Valtats often crossed the Estérel hills, sometimes on bicycles, to visit Auguste Renoir, who had rented the Maison de la Poste in Cagnes. On one such visit in 1903, Renoir painted the Portrait de Suzanne Valtat, while Valtat made a number of pen and ink studies for a portrait of Renoir. The drawings were used as the basis for a woodcut.
Considering the period in which Valtat lived and his close association with so many great artists, it is not surprising to find in his painting both an intensely personal style and a reflection and expression of some of the art movements of his time. He is considered one of the precursors of Fauvism. Like Van Dongen, Valtat discovered his own brand of Fauvism even before Matisse investigated the many facets of the use of pure color. Valtat also exhibited at the Cage de Fauves in 1905, which resulted in the term Fauve initially being applied to a type of painting and a group of painters.
As he was often absent from Paris, his dealer, Ambroise Vollard, had taken over responsibility for sending in his entries for the Salons. Louis Valtat became involved in the uproar over Fauvism at the 1905 Salon d’Automne. From 1914 there were no more winters in Anthéor and he came to miss the pleasures of having a garden. Ten years later he bought a house in Choisel, a little village in the Vallée de Chevreuse, where he spent most of the year. His garden, and the flowers and fruit that he grew there, became the principle sources of inspiration for his painting. It was at Choisel that he enjoyed entertaining his friends Georges d’Espagnat and Maximilien Luce. During one of his visits, Luce painted the village church.
By now the recognition of his fellow artists was assured and he was also appointed Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1927. After the exodus of 1940 and the Occupation years, Louis Valtat hardly left his atelier on the Avenue de Wagram. He suffered from a glaucoma that made it increasingly difficult for him to see and paint, and his health began to fail. At his last public appearance, for the Fauvism exhibition held in the summer of 1951 at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, he attended the exhibition of six of his paintings. The crisis came at the end of 1951, when Louis Valtat was moved to a clinic in Paris, where he died on 2 January 1952.