Few artists so perfectly captured the joyful exuberance of early 20th-century France as the modern painter Jean Dufy. Alongside his brother, the great Raoul Dufy, Dufy’s works have come to define a specific moment in French history — the vivacious and vibrant Art Deco age that immediately preceded the Second World War. His paintings and designs in ceramic represent his country, and particularly Paris, through a highly distinctive, original style marked by a fascinating, modern exploration of harmonious color tones. The result is a body of works that so perfectly reflects its time and place.
Born in Le Havre in 1888, Dufy was the son of a successful accountant who was also an amateur musician. It was a large, creative family; Dufy had ten siblings, including his older brother, Raoul, who was ten years his senior. Like his brother, Dufy studied at Le Havre’s École des Beaux-Arts. While Dufy was still a student, his brother had already established himself as an artist of renown in Paris.
Little is known of Dufy’s early in life in Le Havre, only that he briefly worked as a clerk in the shipping industry that thrived in the port city. Even at this early age, Dufy was beginning to develop his artistic sensibilities, gaining inspiration not only from his surroundings, but also from the Decadent poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Surrealist writings of Arthur Rimbaud. Perhaps the most pivotal event of his young life occurred in 1906 when he attended an exhibition hosted by the Cercle de l’Art Moderne (Modern Art Circle) in Le Havre. The groundbreaking show featured the work of the most innovative artists of the past decades, including Henri Matisse, André Derain, Albert Marquet and Pablo Picasso. There, he encountered Matisse’s Open Window, Collioure (National Gallery, Washington, D.C.), a brilliantly hued Fauvist oil that would significantly influence Dufy’s own use of color throughout his career.
In 1912, Dufy joined Raoul in the French capital. He was eagerly welcomed into his brother’s group of Post-Impressionist friends, which included the likes of André Derain, Georges Braque and Picasso. A 1914 exhibition of his paintings at the Berthe Weill gallery reveals that the young artist had not yet developed his distinctive, boisterous color palette. Instead, his early body of work is defined by more somber tones, revealing the influence of his brother and, by extension, Paul Cézanne, to whom Raoul’s style was greatly indebted. It was not only Cézanne’e palette that the Dufy brothers adopted, but also the distinctive crosshatching technique that Cézanne utilized to lend his forms volume.
After briefly serving in the First World War as a horse soldier, Dufy settled into the Parisian art scene. During this time, he became particularly close with the Cubist painter Georges Braque, who was his neighbor in Montmartre. Braque’s influence can be readily seen in the patchwork style of Dufy’s work from the period. However, while Braque was working in the muted color palette that became associated with the height of Cubism, Dufy had begun to develop the distinctive vibrancy of his palette that would come to characterize his work for the rest of his career.
Also during this time, Dufy earned one of the most fruitful and long-lasting positions of his artistic career when he was hired as a porcelain painter for the famed Théodore Haviland in Limoges. Dufy partnered with Haviland for thirty long, successful years, and his designs for the firm earned him a gold medal at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs in 1925.
An Established Name
To say that Dufy was born in exactly the right time and place is an understatement. His art is interwoven into the cultural fabric of 1920s Paris, and his canvases celebrate everything that made the early 20th century unique in the French city. His art is particularly indebted to two major events that decisively changed his creative outlook. The first was the comedic, Surrealist ballet Le Boeuf sur le toit, which was composed by Darius Milhaud and staged by Jean Cocteau in February 1920. The second was La Revue Nègre, a spectacular cast of African American dancers and singers from Harlem (including the great Josephine Baker) that exploded on the Parisian scene in 1925. Both were a celebration of the reckless, sensational energy of the age, and both introduced Dufy to an entirely new way of life and expression.
Dufy’s art became a visual expression of these two formative cultural experiences, bringing together color and vibrancy and a sense of joie de vivre in each and every composition. His interest in music is reflected in his innumerable depictions of street musicians, orchestras and concert halls, all of which are awash in his distinctive tonal color palettes.
The famed Fratellini family of circus performers, who were the darlings of Parisian society in the 1920s, also greatly influenced Dufy’s canvases. Clowns, horses, athletes and other circus characters featured heavily in his works, all brought to life by a liberal use of color. Yet, like so many artists who came before him, Dufy was most influenced by the streets and monuments of Paris herself, and he found an indefatigable source of inspiration in the historic city. Sacré-Cœur Basilica, the Eiffel Tower, the Gates of Paris, the Seine and even the sky above — all were represented by the painter in harmonious, lyrical tones of blues and greens and purples.
While Paris was undoubtedly his greatest muse, over the years Dufy would also frequently return to the city of his birth, Le Havre, as well as his mother’s birthplace, Villefranche-sur-Mer. Such visits afforded him a quieter subject matter, which he nevertheless rendered in the vibrant, modern palette for which he was renowned. Forest, valleys and seascapes executed in brilliant, unexpected colors such as oranges, turquoises and purples remain an important subset of his oeuvre that rival even his best Parisian scenes.
Dufy spent the last decade of his life enjoying the fruits of his artistic successes, traveling throughout both Europe and North Africa. He eventually settled in the village of Boussay in western France, where he passed away in May of 1964. Just two months before his death, Wally Findlay Galleries in Chicago held an exhibition of roughly 20 of his works, reflecting his persisting celebrity in his later years. Since his death, his works have appeared at exhibitions around the world, and they can be found in the most prestigious museums in the United States and Europe, including the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou (Paris), the Art Institute of Chicago, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Paris) and Museum of Modern Art (New York).
You can explore M.S. Rau’s entire collection of both Jean and Raoul Dufy’s paintings on our website.
About the Author: Ludovic Rousset
Ludovic has over two decades of experience working in the high-end fine art and antiques industry. Native to France, he trained in Art History at the prestigious Institut D’Etudes Superieures d’Art (The European Institute of Art Sciences) in Paris, after which he worked with the finest art and antique galleries in Europe. Having been immersed in art both in Europe and the U.S., he offers a unique perspective to his valued clients, who include art collectors and museums from six continents. Whether it is about paintings or statuary, continental furniture, or rare gems and collectibles, Ludovic’s background positions him as a solid advisor. His knowledge and passion for the arts contribute to his success as a trusted guide in acquiring and developing collections.