‘I have found the essence of my painting in the journey and in the search,’ said French painter, printmaker and textile designer Raoul Dufy, five years before his death. ‘This is what gives my work that air of wandering for which it might be reproached.’ Over the years Dufy’s work has, indeed, found itself reproached. As a near contemporary of great Post-Impressionists like Picasso and Matisse, Dufy has suffered by comparison, his hallmark exuberance accused of mere decorativeness. But beneath the light and playful surface, Dufy’s project was a serious one. ‘The painter,’ he said, ‘has his own vision… he isolates his object and creates his own light for it with his colour.’ 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.
The son of an accountant, Dufy took night classes in drawing while working for a coffee-importing business in the city of his birth, Le Havre. In 1900 he won a scholarship to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and became enthralled to the Fauves and Matisse, whose masterpiece Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904) impressed Dufy greatly. Dufy would never lose his Fauvist belief in colour but, by 1907, he was becoming interested in Cézanne and 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 such as The Wheatfield (1929) and Open Window at Saint-Jeannet (c.1926-7).
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.
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