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‘The painter has his own vision… he isolates his object and creates his own light for it with his colour.’ - Raoul Dufy
Raoul Dufy was born at Le Havre, Normandy in 1877. He left school at age fourteen and by eighteen he was taking night classes in drawing while working for a coffee-importing business. His first paintings were Norman landscapes in watercolour.
In 1900, after a year of military service, he won a scholarship to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he was introduced and profoundly influenced by the Impressionist landscape painters Claude Monet and Camille Pissaro. Dufy held his first exhibition in 1901 and was shown at the Salon des Indépendants in 1903. He continued to paint landscapes, mainly near Le Havre and particularly beach at Sainte-Adresse, made famous by Eugène Boudin and Monet.
In 1905, Dufy was introduced to Matisse’s masterpiece Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904) and the Fauves artists which marked a dramatic shift in his art. He experimented with Fauvism for several years producing his most important body of work. During the summer of 1907, accompanied by his old friend Albert Marquet, the two painted the coasts of Le Havre and Sainte-Adresse experimenting with form and colour and whose vibrancy and luminosity was worthy of Derain's views of Collioure.
As Dufy noted: ‘I had previously painted beaches in the manner of the Impressionists, and had reached saturation point, realizing that this method of copying nature was leading me off into infinity, with its twists and turns and its most subtle and fleeting details. I myself was standing outside the picture. Having arrived at some beach subject or other I would sit down and start looking at my tubes of paint and my brushes. How, using these things, could I succeed in conveying not what I see, but that which is, that which exists for me, my reality? […] From that day onwards, I was unable to return to my barren struggles with the elements that were visible to my gaze. It was no longer possible to show them in their external form’ (Dora Perez-Tibi, 1989, pp. 22-23).
It was during this period that Dufy mastered the use of pure tones and the arabesque style which he would never abandon. These paintings’ energetic execution is testament to the joie de vivre that characterised this short-lived but enduringly popular artistic movement, alive with the atmosphere and excitement of a day at the seaside.
Though he never lost his Fauvist interest in colour, by the end of 1907, his work took on a subtler form introduced by Cézanne and, by 1920, the Cubist ideas of form. His work as the fabric designer for celebrated couturier Paul Poiret, beginning in 1912, marked the outset of a fusion of these ideas into his own inimitable style. Dufy combined a Fauvist obsession with colour, a Cubist re-imagining of the visual plane, and an illustrator’s use of the graphic black outline to create masterpieces in the 1920s.
For Dufy, the artist’s vision made the object ‘no longer part of nature but of art’. It was an idea that paved the way, not just for abstraction, but Conceptualism also, and left behind it one of the most jubilant bodies of work in 2oth-century art.
However, his cheerful oils and watercolours that depict events of the time period, including yachting scenes, sparkling views of the French Riviera, chic parties, and musical events were considered fashionably decorative, and their illustrative nature has made them less valuable, critically, than his contemporaries who addressed a wider range of social concerns. To this Dufy replied: ‘I have found the essence of my painting in the journey and in the search. This is what gives my work that air of wandering for which it might be reproached.’
Towards the end of his career, Dufy was afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis. In order to paint he was often forced to tie the brush to his wrist. In 1952, the year before his death, he was awarded the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale.