Raoul Dufy — A Passion for Color
From Normandy to Provence
Born in Le Havre, a major port city on the English Channel, Dufy takes his first step as an artist at the city’s Municipal Art School before being awarded a scholarship to the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (National School of Fine Arts) in Paris in 1900. His early works, mainly landscapes of the Normandy coast, are Impressionist in style, until 1905 when he encounters the work of Henri Matisse and Fauvism at the famous Salon des Independents — and is briefly attracted by the power of color and the strength of drawing of the Fauvist mouvement.
Then, in 1908, during a trip to the south of France with Georges Braque, Dufy discovers the work of Cezanne. He goes to paint at l’Estaque, a small fishing port close to Marseille, in homage to the Provencal master. While Braque turns to cubism a year later, Dufy continues to study Cezanne’s work until 1914. The blues of the sea and sky remain at the heart of his on-going exploration of his favorite motifs: coastal landscapes, boats, regattas and bathers. But he now adds the ochres, greens and reds hues of Provence to his palette. Warm orange tones also make their way into his indoor scenes, showing the extent to which the southern climate is influencing his appreciation of color.
The Cezanne Legacy
This newfound “Cezannism” endures in the work of Dufy to the end of the decade. He applies it to his own places of residence, Paris and Le Havre. After the First World War, Dufy returns to Vence. Now, while still inspired by Cezanne, he also has a short flirtation with Cubism even as his own distinctive style emerges in the early 1920’s: skeletal structures, arranged with foreshortened perspective, and the use of thin washes of color applied quickly, in a manner that comes to be known as stenographic. Dufy’s cheerful oils and watercolors depict events of the time, including yachting scenes, sparkling views of the French Riviera, regattas and musical events.
A Multifaceted Talent
In addition to his coastal landscapes, the exhibition presents other Dufy favorite themes, among them interiors of his successive workshops, flowers and bathers. The later is a subject of infinite variations as Dufy associates the bather motif with mythological evocations of nymphs and goddesses of Greek and Roman Antiquity, such as Amphitrite or Venus.
He also nurtures a strong interest in flowers, to the point of specializing in the field. From 1910 to 1930, he produces a number of highly successful floral patterns for the French couturier Paul Poiret’s textile company and the Bianchini-Férier silk factory in Lyon. He excels in this area, in which ornaments, scrolls and ellipses are matched by a subtly infinite palette of colors. Then in the 1940’s, he turns to watercolor to represent wildflowers such as poppies, cornflowers, daisies, irises and anemones in seemingly careless bouquets and garden still lifes.
Throughout his career, he also acquires a reputation as an illustrator and as a commercial artist. His engraving plates appear in books by Guillaume Apollinaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and André Gide among others. He produced a huge number of tapestry and ceramic designs. And he paints murals for public buildings.
The Electricity Fairy
In 1937, for the International Exposition of Arts and Technology in Paris, Dufy completes one of the most ambitious paintings ever undertaken: a monumental work of 600 square meters (6500 square feet), composed of 250 panels illustrating the social role of light, to decorated the inside façade of the Pavilion of Light and Electricity. To represent the history of electricity from its first observations to its most recent applications, the composition is organized as a liberated, lively drawing of bright blocks of color, depicting many of the artist’s favorite subjects, including yachts, flocks of birds, festive scenes and allegorical and mythological figures. The work can now be admired in its dedicated permanent hall at the Paris Museum of Modern Art. But the creators of the current exhibition found a way to bring it to their visitors: the last room of the itinerary features an immersive installation of La Fée Électricité which allow the viewer to appreciate the work in greater detail than the original display.
Dufy’s artistic legacy languished for a number of decades after his death in 1953. Critics seemed to consider that the optimistic, fashionably decorative nature of his work trivialized it. Featuring more than ninety works from French and international public and private collections to prove them wrong, the exhibition, which runs until September 18, 2022, is well worth a visit if you happen to be anywhere this summer within detour distance from Aix-en-Provence and the Hôtel de Caumont – Art Center.
Good to Know
- Getting There –By train: there are frequent TVG (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3 hours) and Lyon (1 hour) as well as Geneva (3 hours) and Brussels (5 hours) to Aix-en-Provence. The TGV train station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a bus shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the bus terminal in the center of town. By plane: Marseille–Provence airport is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Aix, with numerous flights from Paris, London and other major European cities. It is served by the same shuttle as the TGV station.
- Visiting – Caumont Art Center, 3, rue Joseph Cabassol, 13100, Aix-en-Provence, France.Is open daily from May 6 to September 18 from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, and from September 19 to May 5 from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact: e-mail, or Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 20 70 01.