The unfashionable delights of Raoul Dufy

Editorial Staff Art

Raoul Dufy is a conspicuous example of a painter who has fallen almost com­pletely from grace. He has not been the subject of a major American exhibi­tion in over a generation, and his name, it seems, is rarely mentioned any more among the living. Indeed, there is no particular reason to write this article just now, since there is unlikely to be a major show, a book, or anything else that will mate­rially enhance his standing in the art world any time soon. And yet, a disservice has been done to this excellent painter, and if criticism cannot redress that injustice, then what use is it?

  • Fig. 3. Still Life by Dufy, c. 1914. Signed “Raoul Dufy” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 18 by 21 ½ inches. Detroit Insti­tute of Arts, City of Detroit Purchase. 

  • Fig. 1. Epsom by Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), 1935. Signed, dated, and inscribed “Raoul Dufy/Epsom 1935” at lower right. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 19 by 26 . inches. Phillips Collection, Washington, D. C. 

  • Fig. 8. The Opera House, Paris by Dufy, early 1930s. Signed “Raoul Dufy” at lower right. Gouache on paper, 19 ¾ by 25 ¼ inches. Phillips Collection. 

  • Fig. 4. Promeneurs au Bord de la Mer au Havre by Dufy, c. 1926. Signed “Raoul Dufy” at lower right. Watercolor on paper, 19 ¼ by 25 inches. Photograph courtesy of Ivey­ Selkirk Auc­tioneers, St. Louis, Missouri. 

Certainly Dufy continues to do well at auction and in the galleries along Madison Avenue and the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. As re­cently as 2007, one of his paintings sold for over €6 million at Sotheby’s, even though this early fauvist work, despite its excellence, was so differ­ent from his usual style as to seem a repudiation of it. But perhaps that salability is the problem: to the extent to which his name comes up at all, Dufy is seen as a second-tier artist whose works look vaguely expensive on the walls of hedge-fund managers. There is no edge to him, as we say today, none of that defiance that we pay our cultural figures to embody or, at the very least-almost as a point of etiquette-to fake. “Mes yeux sont faits pour effacer ce qui est laid,” he once said.1 “My eyes exist to erase ugliness.” And then there is that stubborn and entrenched happiness of his nature: “Dufy was a happy man,” the French scholar Fanny Guillon-Lafaille has written, “and his principal delight was to live and paint and to communicate through his hands the emotions that had dazzled his eyes.”2 Such talk, needless to say, is intolerable to most contemporary critics.

Great artistic forces, however, were at work for nearly half a century to bring an artist like Dufy into being. Born in the Norman port of Le Havre in 1877, Dufy was in his early twenties when he moved to Paris-then the center of the art world-to devote himself to painting. He came of age during the reign of post-impressionism and his first efforts reveal the influence of Bonnard, Gauguin (in his second Breton phase), and Van Gogh. But the true revolution began when Dufy encountered fauvism, specifically Matisse’s Luxe, Calme et Volupte (1904). From this and similar works Dufy acquired a fluid and improvisational approach to form, as well as a faith in the supreme power of color to convey meaning. True, Dufy briefly experimented with cubism, but he soon abandoned its fractured, analytic view of the world. As the critic Pierre Courthion has written, “Dufy could do well only what he did happily, without reworking.”3 The truth of that observation is borne out in his oil paintings, which have all the breezy spontaneity of his watercolors.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the ludic element is a constant and essential part of Dufy’s painting. Leisure, as a mass phenomenon, was the great invention of the nineteenth cen­tury; but if the impressionists were the first to place it squarely in the center of their art, Raoul Dufy took that interest to its logical conclusion. “In Dufy, everyone is dressed for the holidays,” the critic Christian Zervos wrote. (“Tout chez Dufy est vetu d’un habit de fête.”)4 Dufy depicts an urban bourgeoisie at rest, listening to a concert in the Luxembourg Gardens, watching a horserace at Longchamps, or attending a regatta at Henley. Whether he depicts the Côte d’Azur or Venice or even Boston, it is always the weekend and it is always fair weather. His art, to quote Courthion yet again, is alive with “la gaieté du printemps.”5

In fact, I know of no other painter who has captured that first exultant rush of spring fever on a receptive soul more vividly than Dufy. The joy he depicts is at once vitally contemporary and infinitely ancient, and that paradox is played out in the formal terms of his art as well. His paintings (for the most part landscapes and cityscapes) are populated with tiny figures who acquire a powerfully corporate, rather than indi­vidual, identity through the artist’s use of semi-abstract lines that owe as much to the expression­ists as the subject matter owes to impressionism. At the same time, however, Dufy paints his figures, like the parks and buildings that surround them, as a composite of calligraphic lines dashed off with the wayward precision of a Chinese master. And as for the light and immaterial freshness of Dufy’s chromatic sense, the application of pure, sustained blocks of color suggests the fragility and richness of ancient Roman frescoes that have been brought to light after a thousand years.

The joy that Dufy depicts in such works is so infectious that the critic Louis Vauxcelles, no friend of modernism, could nevertheless assert in 1936, when much of Europe was convulsed with dark forebodings, that “Dufy is a benefactor of the human race. At a time of greatest fear of what is to come, a time when the press is full of terrible events, here is the minstrel of joy, the painter of lightsome grace, of freshness and happiness.”6 The minstrel of joy, le chantre de la joie-it would be hard to improve on that incomparable phrase!

But perhaps it was an American, Wallace Stevens, who said it best of all. Stevens had long admired Dufy, and a good case could be made that the role and importance of color in his own poems find their closest visual analogy in the paintings of Dufy: “In the land of the lemon trees, yellow and yellow were / Yellow-blue, yellow-green, pungent with citron-sap.”7 How fitting then, that when the French artist died in 1953, the American poet was moved to write that his death was like “a rip in the rainbow.”8

1 Quoted in Raoul Dufy (Musée national d’histoire et d’art, Luxem­bourg, Luxembourg City, 2010), p. 9.  2 Author’s translation of the  original French quoted  ibid., p. 6.  3 Pierre Courthion, “Dufy, Raoul,”  in Dictionary of Modern Painting, ed. Carlton Lake, Robert Maillard (Tudor Publishing, New York,  1960), p. 109.  4 Quoted in Raoul Dufy, p. 9.  5 Quoted ibid.  6 Author’s translation of original French quoted ibid.  7 Wallace Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” xxix, in The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play, ed. Holly Stevens (Vintage Books, New York, 1971), p. 349.  8 Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous (Knopf, New York, 1957), p. 281.