Raoul Dufy
Biography of French Colourist Painter & Designer.

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The Pantheon and St. Etienne-du-Mont
(1904) Albright-Knox Art Gallery,
Buffalo, New York.

Raoul Dufy (1877-1953)


Mid-Career (1909-19)
Postwar Style of Painting
Final Years (1946-53)

Boats at Martigues (1908)
Courtauld Institute Galleries, London.

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The classically trained French painter, designer and graphic artist Raoul Dufy was first drawn to Impressionism before joining the Fauvism movement (1906-07) led by Henri Matisse. After this he came under the influence of the late Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) whose works he saw at the celebrated Salon d'Automne retrospective in 1907, and also Georges Braque (1882-1963) with whom he worked at L'Estaque in 1908. As a result his style became more sober and monumental, before returning to the natural lighter style: a style distinguished by rapid calligraphic-type drawing over bright backgrounds of thin colour. In his book Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940 (1967), the American art historian George Heard Hamilton (1910-2004) commented that like many minor masters, Dufy found a successful formula from which he never deviated "but it is so amusing and its variations so clever, that it rarely grows tiresome." Dufy also did numerous designs for fashion designers like Paul Poiret and Bianchini-Ferier, as well as illustrations for Apollinaire (1880-1918), and several mural paintings. More and more attracted to decorative art, he became a regular exhibitor at the Salon des Artistes Decorateurs, while also taking up wood engraving, lithography and watercolours. An active contributor to French painting to the end of his life, he won the principal painting prize at the Venice Biennale, in 1952.

Casino at Nice (1927)
Private Collection.

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Dufy grew up in Le Havre in a very musical family, which accounts for the presence of certain themes in his work, such as concerts. At the age of 14 he went to work in an importer's office, but from 1892 onwards was able to go to evening classes given by the painter Lhuillier at the school of fine arts in Le Havre, where he met Othon Friesz (1879-1949). His first enthusiasm was for Eugene Boudin (1824-98), whom he discovered in the local museum, and for Delacroix (1798-1863) whose Justice de Trajan (Trajan's Justice) (Rouen Museum) he later said was one of the most violent impressions of his life.


In 1900, three years after Friesz, Dufy obtained a municipal scholarship to go and work in Paris. He enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Bonnnat's studio, where he came under the influence of the Impressionists, Edouard Manet (1832-83), Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), and also displayed an interest in the Post Impressionists, especially in Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), whose incisive line filled him with enthusiasm. He began to have some success, but the new style he took up from 1904 to about 1906 temporarily diminished this.


During this period Dufy and his friend Albert Marquet (1875-1947) worked together using similar styles, at Fecamp, Trouville and Le Havre. Rue Pavoisee (Street with Flags) and Affiches a Trouville (Posters at Trouville) (1906, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) and Trois Ombrelles (Three Sunshades) (1906, Houston, private collection) are, as far as touch, colour and subject matter go, Fauve paintings, but with a sensitivity that is still Impressionist. Dufy himself said that his own evolution towards a new sort of painting began in 1905, when he discovered Luxe, Calme et Volupte by Matisse (1869-1954), at the Autumn Salon: "Impressionist realism lost its charm for me, in the contemplation of the miracle of the imagination translated into design and colour." Jeanne with Flowers (1907, Le Havre Museum) clearly shows the influence of Matisse. In any event, Dufy exhibited with Les Fauves in 1906 and 1907.


The great Cezanne retrospective in 1907 and a visit to L'Estaque the following year with Braque reinforced in Dufy the need for structure although this did not take him as far as Cubism (Trees at L'Estaque, 1908, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris). The vividness of colour, allied with a clear graphic line, in La Dame en Rose (The Woman in Pink) (1908, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) is reminiscent of Van Gogh (1853-90), and even German Expressionism, which Dufy came to know properly the following year when he visited Munich with Friesz.

Mid-Career: 1909-1919

Around 1909 Dufy's art took on a new lightness, became filled with grace and humour, and displayed considerable decorative charm in the treatment of paint and outlines (Le Bois de Boulogne, 1909, Nice Museum; The Deserted Garden, 1913, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris).

After illustrating with wood-engravings several books by friends who were poets (Bestiaire d'Orphee by Apollinaire, 1910), Dufy became interested in decorative art; with the help of the couturier Paul Poiret he started designing textiles (1911) and from 1912 to 1930 designed fabrics for the firm of Bianchini-Ferier. In 1920, with Fauconnet, he carried out the decor for Le Boeuf sur Le Toit (text by Jean Cocteau, music by Darius Milhaud). In the end, he proclaimed himself a decorator rather than a painter by exhibiting regularly, after 1921, at the Salon des Artistes Decorateurs, by making fountains and plans for swimming pools with the ceramic artist Artigas, and by decorating (1925) Poiret's three famous boats, Amours, Delices and Orgues.

Postwar Style of Painting

After the war, starting with the large compositions of Vence in 1919 (Chicago and Nice museums), Dufy's painting matured into his definitive style. Following a formula to which he was to remain attached, he superimposed a lively, 'Baroque', 'curly' drawing on to patches of pure colour pigment. The result was frequently witty and almost always joyful in atmosphere. This influenced his choice of subjects: he would contrast a moving crowd, translated by the graphic line, with the surrounding unity achieved by his use of flat, bright colours. Moving elements were set against a calm space: a lawn, a stretch of water (Cowes Regatta, 1930, Paris, Louis Carre Collection; Pink Bridge and Railway at Nogent, c.1933, Le Havre Museum) or a racecourse (Courses [Races], 1935, Aga Khan Collection).

Final Years (1946-1953)

After World War II he gave up wood-engraving for lithography and practised watercolour painting more and more. In 1935 he took on a new medium: paints prepared by the chemist Maroger, which allowed him to obtain the lightness and freshness of watercolour. The result of these years of experimenting with decoration was, in 1937, The Electrified Fairy, a gigantic decoration for a pavilion at the Paris Exposition, where the fantasy of the detail, unexpected in so severe a subject, is tempered by the demands of the composition (Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville, Paris).

At the end of his life, Dufy developed a greater austerity, in which his playfulness was matched with a new intensity: a series of Ateliers (Studios) (1942), almost monochrome canvases (Yellow Console, 1947, Paris, Louis Carre Collection; Red Violin, 1948, Paris, private collection). In 1952, by now accepted as one of the most innovative of modern artists, he received the International Grand Prix at the 26th Biennale in Venice. In the course of his long career he also executed many drawings in pen and pencil; often considered his best work, these display his characteristic conciseness, liveliness and humour (a large collection in the Musee National d'Art Moderne in Paris). Expressionist paintings by Raoul Dufy can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

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