If there is one thing that’s distinctive about artist Raoul Dufy (1877 – 1953) it is his use of the colour blue, and I was treated to many of his works at an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art at Le Havre in France.
“Blue is the only colour that holds onto its individuality in all its shades. Take the various tones of blue, from the darkest to the lightest and they will still be blue; whereas yellow goes black in the shadows and it vanishes at its lightest; dark red turns into brown and red diluted with white isn’t red, but pink – a different colour“.
I think the paintings above are easily recognised as the work of Dufy, with his simple lines and beautifully deep shades of blue.
Raoul Dufy was born in Havre in 1877 where he later trained as an artist, and the colour blue predominates in even his earlier works – not surprisingly as he painted the coast around Le Havre, but you can see that these paintings are subtle and traditional in style.
Raoul Dufy, Le Havre, The Docks, 1898
“The unique setting of Le Havre is what made me the artist I am. It was there that I worked with Lhullier, who was an excellent teacher, but it was also where as a 17-year-old employed by an import firm, I supervised dockers. I spent all my time on the decks of ships: it is an ideal training for a painter. I breathed all the perfumes that wafted from the holds. I knew by smell whether a boat came from Texas, the Indies or the Azures, and it fired my imagination. I was transported by the miraculous light of the estuaries, the like of which I’ve only found in Syracuse. Until about 20th August it is radiant; then it takes on increasingly Silver tones. “
From Rene Barotte,with Raoul Duffy on his return to Paris, Comedia, 5 February, 1944
Dufy’s development and Influences
Dufy studied at the Ecole Nationaledes Beaux-Arts in Paris but returned frequently to Le Havre where he was able to see the extensive works of Eugene Boudin at the Le Havre Museum. Like Boudin, Monet and others, he focused on seaside imagery. Impressionism was still the primary artistic movement in France in the early 20th Century, so Dufy’s focus was on rendering the shifting light effects and shimmering air. However, you can see how Dufy’s painting are more strongly outlined, with a frequent use of black.
It was during this phase that his work became less structured, with longer brush strokes, and a freer hand.
“I had done the beaches in the manner of Impressionists, and I had reached a point of saturation… On day, unable to bear it any longer, I went out with just my box of paints and a sheet of paper. When I came to a beach subject, I set out my equipment and started looking at my tubes of paint and my brushes. How, using this, could I succeed in rendering not what I see, but what it, what exists for me, my reality? … From that day forth, it was impossible for me to go back to my sterile tussles with the elements that offered themselves to my gaze.”
It was not long after this that he saw a Fauvist painting by Henri Matisse, Luxury, Calm and Pleasure, at the Salon des Independants in March 1905 – and this was a revelation for him.
” In front of that picture … I understood all the new reasons to paint, and Impressionist realism lost its charm for me as I contemplated the miracle wrought by introducing the imagination into drawing and colour. I instantly understood the new pictorial mechanics.”
Until 1907 Dufy experimented with Fauvism, painting in Le Havre and other areas within Normandy.
With his friend Albert Marquet, he painted the harbour, streets decorated with flags for the 14th of July, boats moored on the quay, the pier and beaches. His drawings become even freer at this point and he works more with stronger colours and more chaotic brushstrokes. And the colour blue is still strongly featured.
In 1907, a retrospective of Paul Cézanne’s work was shown in Paris, and this had a profound effect on a number of painters, including Picasso and Braque, and which was a key factor in the development of Cubism.
Cézanne stated ” Treat nature via the cylinder, the sphere and the cone, and use perspective so that each side of an object or a plane leads towards a central point”.
Dufy was clearly influenced by Cézanne and in 1908 worked alongside Georges Braque at L’Estague, painting landscapes with a strong focus on structure, in a cubist manner. When he returned to Le Havre, he painted panoramas of the beach, the casino and fishing.
In these paintings, he is focused on introducing more density, space and geometry – using vertical planes which lead to an unusually high horizon with only a small amount of sky.
You can also see that his colours are influenced by Cézanne and cubism as this time – with more oranges, greens and browns, but still with his signature use of blues.
This influence is still obvious in his sea bather series in the 1910s.
“I am working on my big canvas [which is] entirely covered by a woman bather in her ever-so-modern navy blue bathing costume with white edging and embroidered anchors around the neck and the usual little waterproof bathing cap … As a backdrop, the charming slope of Saint-Adresse with its terraced greenery and its red brick houses with round and square turrets”.
Letter from Dufy to Fernand Fleuret, 8 June 1913
Raoul Dufy, Large Woman Bather, 1914
Dufy produced numerous variations on this work during his career, reflecting a relaxed Le Havre lifestyle.
It’s after this time that Dufy’s work becomes distinctively his own, creating paintings which are more playful, colourful, and with a freer hand.
Raoul Dufy, Strollers in front of the Casino de la Jetee in Nice, 1948
Raoul Dufy, Regatta Boats Setting Sail in Deauville, c 1835 – 36
I’ve added another couple of strongly coloured pictures, without the blue focus but very strong paintings, with red and black.
Raoul Dufy, The Red Violin, 1949
Dufy moved to the South of France for heath reasons during the Second World War and remained there until his death in 1953, returning only briefly to Le Havre.
He used Le Havre and Saint Adresse as the backdrop for his final series of paintings, using cargo ships as his subject.
” The sun at its zenith is black. You are dazzled; you can no longer see anything in front of you. The dominant impression is of black. You have to take black as your starting point [for] … a composition that finds brightness in the contrasts between colours.”
Raoul Dufy, The Black Cargo Ship, c 1948-52
Although Dufy uses large swatches of black convincingly in these paintings, it will always be his vivid use of blues that will come to mind whenever I think of this artist.
Primary Source: The Museum of Modern Art, Le Havre.