Amongst a very mixed bag of artworks in the catalogue for today’s sale at Sotheby’s in New York are several outstanding pieces by Raoul and a number by Jean Dufy, some of which are shown above. Each is unmistakably by one brother or the other, yet they share a visual language: a family characteristic, if you like, that on the one hand separates their images from the other lots, and on the other, irrevocably links them.
There were nine children in the Dufy family of Le Havre a port city in the Normandy area of north west France. It was a particularly musical family, and the father, in addition to his profession as an accountant, was a talented amateur musician, which probably to some extent explains the fixation for musical productions and composers of the era that are the subjects of many of the brothers’ later creations.
Raoul (1877-1953) was 11 years older than Jean (1888-1964) and is the more famous. In 1900 he obtained a scholarship to study in Paris, where he enrolled at the very academic École des Baux-Arts, however, he was far more interested in impressionist painting. An early exhibition, in 1903, was in the impressionist style he soon afterwards abandoned in favour of the vivid colours and sweeping brush strokes of the fauvists. Impressed with Cézanne’s work, Raoul experimented with a more muted palette. He worked for a time with Georges Braque but never really got into the spirit of Cubism. Discovering the possibilities of wood-engraving at an expressionist exhibition he saw on a trip to Munich in 1909, he illustrated a number of books for his literary friends, including the poet, Guillaume Apollonaire, with woodcuts. Raoul’s woodcuts came to the attention of Paul Poiret, the fashion designer with whom he produced textile designs and for whom he designed the interiors of the designer’s three boats. In the 1920s and 30s he travelled widely, producing paintings in the bold, confident style – optimistic, fashionably decorative and illustrative – that he became recognised for and that characterised the era in which the aftermath of war and social concerns were banished, however briefly. Lively, colorful yachting scenes at Cowes in England, chic parties, musical events and the dazzling life on the French Riviera became the stock in trade of his output.
It had been Raoul who encouraged Jean, who worked as a clerk for an overseas import business and was for a time secretary on the transatlantic liner La Savoie, which linked Le Havre to New York, to paint. But it wasn’t until Jean visited an exhibition in Le Havre showing paintings by André Derain and Picasso, where he saw Matisse’s Fenêtre ouverte à Collioure, with it’s dazzling light and bright colours, that he decided to be an artist. In 1913, moving to Paris, he became acquainted with his brothers’ circle, meeting Derain, Braque, Picasso and Apollonaire. His first watercolors, which were shown at the Berthe Weill Gallery in 1914, were in muted tones: sombre browns, blues, and reds mingled with the hatching technique he inherited from Cézanne via Raoul. Shortly afterwards he was drafted into the army but was able to produce many sketches of landscapes and flowers whilst convalescing from an injury. When the war ended, Jean began decorating porcelain for a company in Limoges – a commission which lasted for many years – before returning to Paris in 1920 where he settled in Montmatre. He began to be recognised for his painting technique based on a kind of patchwork of coloured squares and bold lighting effects. A succession of exhibitions now began that led to his work being shown widely, first in Paris and then in New York. Over the next few years his subject matter would change dramatically to mirror his excitement at the lively Parisian cultural scene. He loved the theatre and came into contact with many famous actors, musicians and composers. Their life and energy became the subjects of his creations. There followed paintings of circuses, boldly coloured and filled with horses, clowns and acrobats.
Surprisingly, Last year’s exhibition, Raoul and Jean Dufy: Complicity and Disruption, at Paris’s Musée Marmottan Monet, was the first exhibition in France exclusively dedicated to showing the two brothers’ work together. They had been close, if not living in one another’s pockets, until a big brotherly bust up over the gigantic mural – 61m long x 10m high, 200ft x 33 ft, La Fee Electricité (The Electricity Fairy). They had been commissioned to produce it together as a hymn to electricity for the Paris International Exposition of 1937 but Raoul ended up executing the final painting by himself. However, rather than for their differences, it’s for their gay and colourful scenes for which the brothers are most remembered and for the sheer joie de vivre their work conveys to the viewer.
Works from top
Jean Dufy Bois de Boulogne, 1930
Oil on canvas
Jean Dufy Boulevard avec caleches
Oil on canvas laid down on masonite
Property of a private collector, Palm Beach, USA
Jean Dufy Port de Honfleur
Watercolor and gouache on paper
Raoul Dufy Reception aux lumieres & Double étude de nu. A double-sided work
Watercolor and gouache on paper recto, pen and ink on paper verso
Property of a Boston gentleman, USA
Raoul Dufy Carrefour en forêt
Watercolor on paper
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