The French painter Georges Braque (1882-1967) was, with Picasso, the founder of cubism, one of the most significant movements in Western art.
Georges Braque was born in Argenteuil, the son of a house-painting contractor who was an amateur artist. In 1890 the family settled in Le Havre, where Braque entered the École des Beaux-Arts in 1899. He went to Paris in 1900 and worked as a house painter. From 1902 to 1904 Braque studied at the Académie Humbert. As a result of his friendship with Raoul Dufy and Othon Friesz, both artists from Le Havre, Braque became allied with the Fauve movement in 1906. With Friesz he traveled to Antwerp in 1906, to La Ciotat in 1907, and several times to L'Estaque.
Braque's Fauve period proved transitory, and his Fauve works were relatively restrained. In the Paris version of La Ciotat (1907), for example, the colors, though vivid, are not dazzling, and the brushstrokes are applied in small rectangular units rather than in the broad, quick swatches used, for example, by Maurice Vlaminck.
Initial Cubist Phase, 1908-1909
By 1908 Braque had developed a great admiration for the work of Paul Cézanne, whose influence is discernible in Braque's Houses at L'Estaque (1908). In this protocubist painting the sensuousness and relative abandon of Braque's Fauve period have been cast aside. The houses have been reduced to simple cubes in shades of dull greens and grays. To underscore the geometrical severity, the windows and doors of the houses and details of the foliage have been eliminated. Braque and Pablo Picasso, who met at this time and were practically inseparable until 1914, precipitated the mature development of cubism.
Analytic Cubist Phase, 1909-1911
In cubist painting, planes merge and the distinctions between background and foreground and between one form and another become obliterated, as the object or figure seems to be viewed simultaneously from various angles. A masterpiece of Braque's analytic cubist period is the Man with the Guitar (1911), in which the figure of the musician, painted in somber earth colors and dissected into small fragments, in presented in a static triangular format. Details of the anatomy of the figure and the parts of the instrument seem to be discernible one moment, indiscernible the next. Braque's and Picasso's paintings of 1909-1911 are especially close and in some cases virtually indistinguishable, though Braque's work is more elegant, slightly more restrained, less emotional, and less expressive.
Synthetic Cubist Phase, 1911-1914
From 1911 on Braque became less dependent on physical reality as the starting point for his artistic conception. Instead of showing the object in its totality, though broken into smaller fragments, he took parts of several objects and arranged them in new combinations. From this time, too, he showed an interest in simulating the textures of wood, marble, and other materials in his paintings, and in his collages he incorporated into the composition bits of real cloth or wood. Thus, in addition to the ambiguous spatial effects of his analytic phase, Braque's synthetic phase featured new ambiguities between what was real and what was created by the artist. In his Clarinet (1913), for example, pasted newspaper fragments, charcoal, chalk, and oil paint are so manipulated as to simulate an actual tabletop. The letters from the newspaper clipping function only as decorative or formal elements. The softness of the textures and the oval curves within the rectangular frame produce a delicacy seldom found in Picasso's work of the same period.
Work after 1914
When World War I broke out, Braque was sent to the front and was wounded in 1915. After a long hospital confinement he began to paint again in 1917, adopting a course independent of Picasso. After 1918 Braque largely abandoned collage and the relative austerity of his synthetic cubist phase. A new richness and sensuousness of the painted surface became discernible in his work, but tempered by restraint and refinement. Although cubist devices and passages occasionally occurred, they ceased to be fundamental to Braque's conception.
In the Still Life with Guitar and Fruit (1924) the individual integrity of the richly painted guitar and of the still-life elements is maintained. The objects are clearly placed on a table, but their exact spatial locations are a bit vague. The forms now swell and expand and the paint is handled with a creamy richness, yet the colors are tastefully kept within the orbit of browns and grays. During the 1920s Braque liked to use the human figure, often a female nude, in conjunction with his still-life objects. His Nude (1925) in Chicago displays a sensuous, monumental figure, somewhat in the manner of Pierre Auguste Renoir.
Braque continued to go his own way, unaffected by the latest changes in European painting. But the harmony and containment of his art did not preclude a richness and originality of expression, which was especially evident in the 1930s. His Woman with a Mandolin (1937) is a rich blend of shades of green, citrons, and purples. The woman, sitting before the elegant furnishings of the room, is rendered as a silhouette, reminiscent of the flat forms frequent in the synthetic cubist canvases.
Braque also executed some sculptures in plaster, about 50 lithographs, and etchings for Hesiod's Theogony (1931).
Edwin B. Mullins, The Art of Georges Braque (1968), is a comprehensive study of the artist; over half the book is devoted to Braque's work after 1920. Georges Braque: His Graphic Work, with an introduction by Werner Hofmann (1961), is the authoritative work on Braque's graphics. See also John Russell, G. Braque (1959); Jean Leymarie, Braque (1961); and the chapter on Braque in Janet Flanner, Men and Monuments (1947). Background works on cubism include John Golding, Cubism: A History and an Analysis, 1907-1914 (1959); Guy Habasque, Cubism (1959); and Robert Rosenblum, Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art (1960).
Zurcher, Bernard, Georges Braque, life and work, New York: Rizzoli, 1988.
Fauchereau, Serge, Braque, New York: Rizzoli, 1987. □