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 Argenteuil.4 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.