“If only I could express all the joy I have inside me!”
These were the words the sick, suffering Raoul Dufy addressed a few days before his death to his biographer Marcelle Berr de Turique. And Dina Vierny, Maillol’s famous model, remembered Dufy’s visit to Perpignan during World War II: “What I value most in my memory of him is the feeling of life he exuded. He was never boring but as amusing, light and serious as a piece by Mozart”.
The happy, radiant nature of this prolific artist courses through his production, to the point that it convinced the most caustic of critics, such as Louis Vauxcelles: “Dufy is a benefactor. He is a minstrel of joy, a painter of elegant grace, of freshness and joyfulness” (1936).
Raoul Dufy was born in Le Havre in 1877, the second child in a family of modest background that would eventually number eleven. An accountant by profession, his father was also an organist and went to great lengths to transmit his love of music to his children: whereas Dufy’s brothers Léon and Gaston would become professional musicians, the future painter learned the piano and organ and his art almost always contained a link with music in one form or another.
At an early age Dufy was obliged to earn a living. Despite having good grades at school, in 1891 he began work in a company that imported coffee from Brazil and in 1892 enrolled in evening classes at the École municipale des Beaux-Arts in Le Havre taught by Charles Lhuillier, a former pupil of Cabanel. There he got to know Georges Braque and Othon Friesz, whose friend he would remain, and visited the museums in Le Havre and Rouen, where he developed an interest in the art of Géricault, Delacroix, Corot and Boudin.
As a result of a scholarship given to him by the City of Le Havre to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he was able to rejoin Friesz in Bonnat’s studio and, above all, to discover and be dazzled by the impressionist paintings in the galleries of Durand-Ruel and Sagot, and by Cézanne and Gauguin at Vollard’s. He immediately introduced more colour into his work, which was not at all to the taste of his teachers: “I understood that day that there was nothing at all for me at the School”.
On the traces of his elders, during the years 1901–1904 he explored the work of the Impressionists, borrowing certain motifs from them, such as the beach at Sainte-Adresse painted by Monet, the landscapes around Paris dear to Pissarro, and genre scenes beloved of Renoir, while immediately demonstrating his personal originality. His painting, preceded in most cases by drawings, did not attempt to render the quivering of the light and consequent dissolution of forms in the manner of Monet; on the contrary, it attempted to create solid forms and composition through the use of geometric lines (as seen in the recurrent motif of the landing stage) and a dense yet rapid touch that was not unlike that seen in certain works by Boudin, however, no-one could rival Dufy in the suggestion of a breath of coastal wind!
Dufy’s latent need to go beyond impressionism found a solution when he discovered Matisse’s canvas Luxe, calme et volupté at the Salon des Indépendants in spring 1905:
“At the sight of this picture I understood the new raison d’etre of painting and impressionist realism lost all its charm for me as I beheld this miracle of creative imagination at play, introduced into line and colour. I immediately understood the new pictorial mechanics”.
Fauvism – the logical outcome of the Matissian approach to painting based on the work of Gauguin – exploded at the Salon d’automne the same year, and at the same time supplied a theoretical and formal framework to his research.
“Until then I had painted beaches using the impressionist manner and reached saturation point, and I understood that using this fashion of imitating nature I was getting lost in its slightest and most fleeting meanders. My self remained outside the painting. When I sat down before a beach motif, I looked at my tubes of colours and brushes. With these how can I attain not only what I see but that which is, that which exists for me, my reality? Here was the entire problem. From this day forward it was impossible for me to return to my sterile battles with the elements which offered themselves to me. It was no longer a question of representing these elements within their exterior form”.
Having freed himself of all academic education, Dufy joined the Fauves and immediately felt the influence of divisionism as used by Matisse (large rectangular touches, the canvas left bare) or by Marquet (whose colourism was often more moderate), whom he accompanied in 1906 to sites on the Normandy coast.
From 1905 to 1908, his painting took a delight in the arbitrary excess of pure colours and forceful simplification of forms while impressing his personal stamp on the fauve style. Aside from his very distinct pleasure in painting busy, popular scenes (activities on the beach, fishermen in the bay, streets decked out for 14 July, etc.), Raoul Dufy stands out for the very personal energy that radiates from his works: the lively, cheerful execution of his figures with one or few touches of colour (not unlike Marquet’s technique) or a simple, spirited outline – accompanied by a shadow or coloured aura – combined with a dynamic composition created by a few straight lines or a long elliptical line depicting, for example, the curve of the bay of Sainte-Adresse. He discovered a way forward to manipulate space which would itself generate a disproportion between the different elements of the composition.
The year that represented his most ambitious progress was 1908. In Boats at Martigues, the ellipse in the background is a component of the structure of the work that seems like a view seen through a glass that multiplies the viewpoints. The dynamic composition, accentuated further by the carefully directed touches that sculpt the surface of the water, is combined with saturated colour applied in flat tints generating an uncommonly expressive force.
L’Apéritif exemplifies a yet more inventive freedom. The whirling distribution of the figures is situated in a composition of inverted curves in which the abundance of arcs powerfully expresses the joyful intoxication of the drinkers, while the variety of technical means used – flat tints, outlines, modelling – is combined with a very much lighter use of colour. The abundance of formal elements may have led Dufy to question his representation of reality.
It is certain that he felt the need to explore other avenues: he took his fauve experience to the limit with Boats and Fishing Boats in Martigues (1907–1908?) in which the power of the colour pushes the subject itself into the background, and the geometric interplay of the lines and planes presaged a new direction.
This made its appearance in Boats in Marseille Port (1908): the decomposition of the landscape overlooking the boats into geometric planes and the muted ochres and greens clearly heralded the next stage in his development.
Dufy, who had known the Midi since 1903, visited again in spring 1908. Did he paint this canvas before his collaboration with Braque, who joined him in the summer? Had he had the chance , when he was living in Montmartre, to see Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at the Bateau-Lavoir, as Braque had in 1907? Whatever the truth of the matter, it was at L’Estaque, near Marseille, on the traces of Cézanne who used to visit the town in the 1870s, that he and Braque worked on the same motifs – valley landscapes, the alley of the tilery, etc. – and together developed the first phase of a new artistic revolution: pre-cubism or “Cézannian cubism”. What they drew from the body of work of their predecessor, which they were able to study at the posthumous retrospective presented at the Salon d’automne in 1907, was the notion of giving a painting a precise and simplified architecture in an attempt to eliminate the structure of the forms by means of geometrized volumes in planes rendered by modulations and using a palette restricted to subdued ochres, greys and greens.
The tree motif that frames the composition of L’Apéritif was used again in Dufy’s series of “Trees at L’Estaque” to which he added a lyrical aspect. This tendency towards nature and his rejection of theory would soon prevent him from following the cubist adventure of the complete analysis of forms with Braque and Picasso. But in reintroducing the use of colour he would long attempt to either structure the space of the painting in overlapping planes that multiply the perspectives or to render the buildings in cubes.
Although Dufy initially enjoyed a certain degree of commercial success, his daring fauve and cubist paintings were not understood by the public and his dealer let him go. Burdened by material difficulties, Dufy found an outlet in the decorative arts: first in woodcut illustrations, then in 1911 with the printing of motifs on fabric for the clothes designer Paul Poirier and, a year later, for the Bianchini-Férier silk company in Lyon. These partnerships, which were resumed after the Great War and lasted until the end of the 1920s when Dufy decided to dedicate himself to painting alone, led to mutual influences between the work of Dufy the painter and of Dufy the decorator.
Thanks to “pure colour and a penchant for deformation and the arabesque of the Fauves”, Dufy contributed to “the renaissance of printed fabrics”. It was during the years 1913 and 1914 that his research into decoration seemed to stimulate his painting: he began to employ increasingly fluid and varied lines on a background still marked by cubism, using a facture that heightened in lightness and revealed a new freedom. Whereas the Abandoned Garden reveals the emergence of a graphic design that minimized the importance of proportions and perspective, in La Grande Baigneuse he placed a monumental and generously proportioned female figure in a bathing costume against a ground of coloured chevrons: a modern image of a sea-goddess, and not without a hint of humour!
In 1919, Dufy was ready to find his personal aesthetic and artistic language. He moved in the direction of a free choice of colours, often dazzling, under the influence of the Mediterranean light in Vence, where he stayed at regular intervals, and freely employed curves, curls and hatching with an invention worthy of the Baroque.
Following the Great War, the “return to order” was accompanied by a policy of economic recovery in France thanks to the luxury industries. The government encouraged the renewal of the decorative and industrial arts, which were the subject of an international exhibition in 1925, to which Dufy contributed by decorating one of Poiret’s barges. Everything was right for him to achieve success as an artist-cum-decorator, even though he claimed he was primarily a painter. He attempted to infuse his art with a tempered modernity that was agreeable to the aristocratic and upper-middle-class circles he frequented since Bianchini had taken him to the horse tracks to see his printed silks worn by elegant society women.
This development further stimulated his desire to create a dynamic, colourful art and he reached his full artistic maturity in the second half of the 1920s. Encouraged by his work in the decorative arts and use of watercolours, which was to become one of his favourite techniques, his facture grew increasingly free in both his use of colour and his style, so that from this time on his paintings demonstrate a perfect mastery of expression. His favourite themes were connected with the leisure activities of his affluent clientele (regattas, horse races, bridle paths, casinos, etc.) and the places they frequented, in which the seaside was his preferred location (open windows looking onto the sea, views of Nice and Le Havre), with the sea itself even filling the entire canvas.
Having become a fixed member of this society, Dufy bought himself a high-powered sports car, went touring and, in the words of Dina Vierny, hosted “like a figure from the eighteenth century” in his luxurious villa in Villerville (Calvados).
The economic crisis of the 1930s struck right in the middle of this period of success for Dufy but, anxious to maintain his lifestyle, he found an outlet for his large-scale works in the growing interest for monumental decorative art. This was particularly the case with the Front Populaire, which considered wall decoration a way to educate the masses. Defending the principle that a union exists between architecture and painting, Dufy was happy to accept commissions for large official decorations – for the Singerie at the Jardin des Plantes, the bar in the Théâtre du Palais de Chaillot and, above all, for the wall decoration for the pavilion built by Mallet-Stevens and Pingusson for the Parisian electricity company in the Arts and Techniques section of the 1937 International Exposition. Titled La Fée Électricité and created with the help of his brother Jean, this commission was for the largest painting in the world (600 m2) with the aim of exalting the history of the discovery of electricity and illustrating the changes to everyday life that this form of energy has brought us. Dufy’s work as a decorator very quickly extended to all fields: theatre sets, book engravings, ceramics and tapestries, advertising albums, and so on.
The year 1937 marked the recognition of Raoul Dufy not only throughout France but also America, where he was invited in 1950–52 so that he could receive the new medical treatment of cortisone. Since the start of the 1930s he had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis which quickly altered the manner in which he painted and affected his choice of subjects. In Perpignan during World War II, where he took thermal cures and lived until 1950, his production turned more and more to small format works, was marked by less precision, and was based on subjects that did not require him to travel, such as the series of artist’s studios, the resumption of his Tributes to his favourite composers (Bach and Debussy) which he had left on one side since those dedicated to Mozart around 1915, and his new series of Black Cargos (as from 1945), Orchestras (1941–46) and Violins (late 1940s to early ’50s). When staying in the Pyrenees, he began a series of Dépiquages (1943–50), which was the subject of his last canvas. He painted it in Forcalquier (Alpes du Sud) where he had moved in 1952 to benefit from the climate. Despite suffering from sickness, this period was one in which this relentless worker made great progress in his work.
Considered overall, Dufy’s pictorial production displays an astonishing freedom. Exceptionally gifted – he was able to draw with both hands at the same time – he painted with his left hand in order to channel its energy and dedicated himself as much to developing a sprightly manner as to the simplistic lines of a child, such as joined chevrons to signify ripples on the surface of the water, creating a delightful mix of refinement and naivety.
Following a typical artistic evolution, he had discovered impressionist painting and explored several avant-garde movements before retaining the various aspects of them that were of interest to him in the creation of a new style supported by his own discoveries and theories. What seems to have been completely new, however, is that he managed to find a balance between impressionism – the transcription of sensations caused by light and atmosphere – and an art attached to the formal elements of painting so as to create a personal vision, one descended from post-impressionism, and he achieved all that without the faintest desire to influence other artists.
His themes reflect a fanciful eclecticism. Whereas he mostly produced landscapes, interiors of his various studios and recreational activities, he drew his inspiration from his immediate environment. Thus he first painted the leisure activities of the working class and later those of the well-to-do, and during his final period depicted rural activities (the series Dépiquages). His paintings thus illustrate modern life but he was quite happy to include references here and there to classical mythology, such as combining the figure of Amphitrite with constructions and figures from his own time. He also paid tribute to the great artists of the past, from Le Lorrain for his research into light to Renoir, and creating personal reinterpretations of some of their paintings.
Thus Dufy was more interested by the plastic research stimulated by the characteristics of his subject than by the subject itself, except for at the end of his life when he developed musical themes with the manifest desire to make the pictorial treatment harmonize with the subject.
Without being a theoretician like Matisse or Lhote, Dufy discussed his ideas on art in his notebooks, unpublished manuscripts and interviews. He advocated a “moral perspective”, by which he meant “painting is the creation of an image that does not reflect the appearance of things but which has the force of their reality”.
“Perspective is what is used to link all the elements in a composition […]. I have noticed that greater expressive force is obtained when all the objects are placed in a plane parallel to the observer and not perpendicular, which creates a vanishing point and tends to pierce the background […]”.
In fact, he was fond of spaces “all over”, in which traditional divisions are abolished, there are multiple viewpoints and the scale of the figures is linked to their emotional importance, so that all spatial hierarchy disappears. However, he was also capable of making use of a classic perspective in certain works (for example, The Studio in Rue de l’Ange in Perpignan, 1947).
He was also capable of creating paintings in which the primary characteristics are stasis and the saturation of the colours (La Baie des Anges in Nice, 1932), even though his art as a whole reflects a search for movement and the transparency of light. Light was one of his major concerns: as the primary characteristic of a place, he used it to model the space of the painting.
“We have the tree, the bench and the house but what interests me, the most difficult thing, is what surrounds these objects. How can all this be held together?”
“If the painter does not create the light using his colours, he cannot hope to make the things seen and understood, it is the light that brings them out for us, not their colour”.
“Colour represents the light that forms and brings life to everything together because light is life, it is the soul of colour”.
“If you take an interest in sunlight, you are wasting your time. Light in a painting is an entirely different thing, it is the light of distribution, composition, light as colour”.
Therefore, it lies at the origin of an autonomous pictorial space and may be in continuous expansion (“all over”) (for example, Fête nautique au Havre, 1925) or strongly compartmentalized (for example, Yellow Console between Two Windows, 1948).
“My research was precisely aimed at finding a hierarchy in colour, the material colour in the tubes”.
He went as far as to conceive white shadow:
“Get into the habit of separating shadow from the light, of using pure colour for the latter and white for the shadow” (an idea that resembles Derain’s words in a letter to Vlaminck written in Collioure in 1905).
And in consequence he also came to consider black in an unusual way:
“The sun at its zenith, that is black; it blinds us and we no longer see anything”.
“We are accustomed to thinking that a tone lightens in sunlight and darkens in shadow. Dufy sees it the other way round: where colour is most accentuated, strongest, most concentrated, and thus most caught by the light, according to Dufy it is darker”, says Marcelle Berr de Turique. In 1913 a black zone appeared in the centre of his work that would return now and again over the years, then, at the end of his life, he made black a subject of his work in the series of Black Cargos: should we see it as a wish for celestial bedazzlement?
Blue, however, linked with the sea beside which he was born, would remain his favourite colour, and with which he covered his walls in his Paris studio in Impasse de Guelma:
“Blue is the only colour that, in all its gradations, maintains its individuality”.
His thoughts on the relationship between colour and light led him to the principle of juxtaposed bands of three colours that would become a classic characteristic of his art, on top of which he placed the outline of his forms (for example, Races at Epsom, circa 1934).
In 1935 his encounter with Jacques Maroger, the director of the technical laboratory at the Louvre, opened new horizons to him. As a result of his studies of the oil paints used by the Old Masters, Maroger devised a new medium in which oil paints behaved like watercolours – drying quickly and offering maximum transparency – without losing their advantages of permanence and colour quality. Without the benefit of Maroger’s knowledge, Dufy would probably never have been able to successfully complete the immense task represented by La Fée Électricité, nor attain the maximum of transparency in the series of Studios during his last period.
In 1926, Dufy made an observation that would be decisive for the development of his style: “line disappears more quickly than colour or, at least, colour remains imprinted on the retina longer than movement”. “We become aware of the colour of an object long before our perception of its contour and it also leaves us later”. Colour and form are therefore independent of one another and he therefore inferred that they should not be made to coincide on the canvas. He had in fact already experimented with this in 1913 with The Paddock, though perhaps unconsciously. He went as far as to create forms that did not have their own colour, as though they were transparent and dematerialised.
As a man of his time, always “impressed by movement, speed, life”, this separation of colour and form matched his style when he discovered New York in 1950. “A line better describes a movement than it does a form”. Consequently, his design became lighter and more quickly effected, to the point that it is described as “stenographic”, and contributed to the “unfinished” appearance of his works, similar to some of Cézanne’s.
His research into movement led to the injection of dynamism into objects and figures, but also into the construction of his compositions that, from a very early period of his career, often employed concave or convex elliptic curves.
During the years 1937–1953, Dufy aspired to yet greater luminosity and lightness, fusing his tints in a manner similar to a rainbow or in vertical slices. Around 1946 the objects represented in his paintings became simple pretexts for increasingly unregimented arabesques, and forms were reduced to signs placed on a tonality in flat tints of the same colour. This was a new stage in Dufy’s evolution, as well as being the final one, marked by his tendency towards an extreme economy of means, both in the subject (in which a single element symbolized a whole: a violin for an orchestra, a table for a studio) and treatment (the sublime decorative aspect of his art). Following on from the omnipresence in his work of rhythm and variations (the development of series, some of which marked by intervals lasting years), this tonal painting was a further confirmation of his love of music, as is indicated by his choice of themes and, above all, his intention to demonstrate the equivalence between sound and vision, a direct descendant of the synaesthetic correspondences apparent to Baudelaire which had also been dear to Gauguin.
Suffering from physical pain, Dufy entered a contemplative period in which, with his tonal painting, he envisioned a universe in which everything was pure vibration.
“Dufy is pleasure” wrote Gertrude Stein in 1946, thinking of the man as much as his art. The outcome of the union of major and minor arts (already investigated by Gauguin), his light, vibrant painting fills the senses and conveys a feeling of joy despite the tribulations of life and history that he lived through.
Dufy’s art coolly displays its independence of the hard-line, universalist avant-garde. He had no qualms about becoming an official artist, even if it meant passing for a decorator, at the service of his clientele and the nationalism that existed between the wars. Had he not started up a business producing patriotic engravings in 1915?
Yet, without having been a revolutionary, Raoul Dufy made discoveries that interested the young generation: the separation of line and colour and the uninhibited design of his mature period influenced American abstract expressionism during the 1940s (Pollock), and in the middle of the same decade in France the young Pierre Soulages was won over by his notion of black as light.
Maurice Laffaille, Raoul Dufy, catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre peint (vol. I, 1895-1915 ; vol. II, à partir de 1919), 1972-1973
Maurice Laffaille, Fanny Guillon-Laffaille, Raoul Dufy, catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre peint (vol. III, vol. IV), 1976-1977
Maurice Laffaille, Fanny Guillon-Laffaille, Raoul Dufy, catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre peint (vol. V, supplément), 1985
Raoul Dufy, un autre regard : catalogue de l’exposition à la Fondation Dina Vierny-Musée Maillol, 2003
Raoul Dufy, de L’Estaque à Forcalquier, 1909-1953 : catalogue de l’exposition à la galerie d’art du Conseil général des Bouches-du-Rhône à Aix-en-Provence, 2005
Raoul Dufy, le Plaisir : catalogue de l’exposition au Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2008
Raoul et Jean Dufy, complicité et rupture : catalogue de l’exposition au Musée Marmottan à Paris, 2011