Dufy's abiding interest with colour and the sea found its perfect outlet in the theme of the regatta with all its bustling activity and bright colour. The subject first appeared in Dufy's oeuvre as early as 1907-1908 and the artist returned to it frequently from 1925-1935, depicting his native Le Havre and glamorous Deauville, as well as Henley and Cowes in England. By this time, he had developed a fascination for the elegant crowds attending the regattas and racecourses, approaching these events from the people's perspective, always keeping his treatment fresh by varying his colours and perspectives.
Dufy's interest here was two-fold: that of colour and that of social observation. He was fascinated by the luminosity and transience of sunlight upon water and used this to further his theory of couleur-lumière. Dufy wrote, 'the colour captures the light that forms and animates the group as a whole. Every object or group of objects is placed within its own area of light and shade, receiving its share of reflections and being subjected to the arrangement decided by the artist' (quoted in D. Perez-Tibi, Dufy, London, 1989, p. 150). Le retour des régates employs a dynamic composition based on the vertical sails in the foreground, but Dufy also uses the quayside buildings between the uprights to create a sense of recession and depth.
Besides this application of colour theory, Dufy's interest was his subject matter and he immersed himself into the glittering world of the Parisian beau monde, as he sought to capture them at their leisure pursuits. It was an existence that led him from Nice's Promenade des Anglais, along the Mediterranean coastline and up to the paddocks and beaches of Deauville, all subjects that allowed him to depict spontaneous movement through his use of rapid brushwork. In the present work, the constant motion of the sailing crafts, the excitement of the event, the brightness of the hulls are all masterfully conveyed with typical bravado.
'The sea attracted his attention as a backdrop for human activities and as an excuse for painting lively spectacles bathed in light. He returned to this theme over and over again, expanding and transforming it. The variations arise in the structure of the paintings and the choice and arrangement of colours. A master of his technique, he made use of an increasingly free and dynamic composition, with vibrant colours exploding in a fanfare to announce the start of the race' (quoted in D. Perez-Tibi, op. cit., London, 1989, p. 158).