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Gustave Moreau was the movement's inspirational teacher;7 a controversial professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and a Symbolist painter, he taught Matisse, Marquet, Manguin, Rouault and Camoin during the 1890s, and was viewed by critics as the group's philosophical leader until Matisse was recognized as such in 1904.8 Moreau's broad-mindedness, originality and affirmation of the expressive potency of pure color was inspirational for his students.9 Matisse said of him, "He did not set us on the right roads, but off the roads. He disturbed our complacency."9 This source of empathy was taken away with Moreau's death in 1898, but the artists discovered other catalysts for their development.9
In 1896, Matisse, then an unknown art student, visited the artist John Peter Russell on the island of Belle Île off Brittany.10 Russell was an Impressionist painter; Matisse had never previously seen an Impressionist work directly, and was so shocked at the style that he left after ten days, saying, "I couldn't stand it any more."10 The next year he returned as Russell's student and abandoned his earth-colored palette for bright Impressionist colors, later stating, "Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained color theory to me."10 Russell had been a close friend of Vincent van Gogh and gave Matisse a Van Gogh drawing.10
In 1901, Maurice de Vlaminck encountered the work of Van Gogh for the first time at an exhibition, declaring soon after that he loved Van Gogh more than his own father; he started to work by squeezing paint directly onto the canvas from the tube.9 In parallel with the artists' discovery of contemporary avant-garde art came an appreciation of pre-Renaissance French art, which was shown in a 1904 exhibition, French Primitives.9 Another aesthetic influence was African sculpture, of which Vlaminck, Derain and Matisse were early collectors.9