Raoul Dufy had encountered the paintings of the artists who became known as 'les Fauves'--Charles Camoin, André Derain, Henri Manguin, Albert Marquet, Henri Matisse and Maurice de Vlaminck--even before the famous Salon d'Automne of 1905. Dufy had been exhibiting pictures at Berthe Weill's gallery since 1902, and her small shop also hosted exhibitions of Matisse and his colleagues. During the summer and fall of 1904 Dufy painted in Fécamp in the company of Marquet. Dufy's manner during this period was Impressionist, and in its muted, pastel rendering of the subtle nuances of northern light owed much to the example of Eugène Boudin and early Claude Monet.
It came as a revelation to Dufy when he viewed Matisse's Luxe, calme et volupté (coll. Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris) in March 1905 at the 21st Salon des Indépendants. He later recalled how he then grasped "all the new reasons for painting. I understood instantly the new pictorial mechanics" (quoted in J. Freeman, The Fauve Landscape, exh. cat., The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990, p. 68). The example of Luxe, calme et volupté revealed to Dufy how it was possible to interpret nature not merely by means of finely observed effects of light, but through the boldly subjective organization of pure color. Looking at his pigments, the artist pondered: "With these how can I attain not only what I see but that which is, that which exists for me, my reality? Here was the entire problem. From this day forward it was impossible for me to return to my sterile battles with the elements which offered themselves to me. It was no longer a question of representing these elements within the exterior form" (quoted in ibid., p. 94).
The paintings that Dufy subsequently viewed in the notorious room seven of the 1905 Salon d'Automne, 'le cage aux Fauves,' convinced him that he should ally himself with the new movement. It had also attracted two artists who like Dufy had come from Le Havre and liked to paint along the channel coast, Georges Braque and Emile-Othon Friesz. Matisse, however, was protective of his group's celebrity and resisted Berthe Weill when she sought his permission to include Dufy in the same room with the rest of the Fauve circle in a group show at her gallery in the fall of 1905. Weill was very loyal to Dufy, who became her favorite Fauve artist, and she gave him his first one-man show in 1906. Already differences between the Normandy group and the original Fauve circle were becoming apparent. Dufy, Braque and Friesz liked to paint the channel ports and resort beaches in a manner that embraced contemporary urban life. Matisse and his followers preferred to seek out landscapes in the Midi and along the Mediterranean that projected a timeless and idyllic aspect.
By 1907 it was becoming clear that the Fauves were sharing less and less of a common agenda, and that the belief in using pure color had opened up more formal possibilities than any one group could incorporate. Indeed, the dialectic had begun to swing away from color to a more structural use of form. The impact of Paul Cézanne was now becoming very powerful. There was a special exhibition of his paintings in the 20th Salon des Indépendants in the spring of 1904, as well as a gallery devoted to his work in the Salon d'Automne of the same year. Cézanne died in 1906, and there was a memorial exhibition in the 23rd Salon des Indépendants, followed by a major retrospective in the Fifth Salon d'Automne, both in 1907.
Les Martigues was painted near the conclusion of Dufy's Fauve phase. Dufy had spent the summer of 1907 painting in Le Havre and nearby Saint-Adresse, his favorite sites on the channel coast. In the fall he traveled to Marseille and the small fishing town of Les Martigues to the west. He had first made an extended visit to this area in the summer of 1903, and he returned there several more times in subsequent years. Camoin had described Les Martigues as "a marvelous region, a Provençal Venice" (quoted in ibid., p. 83). In a series of paintings Dufy depicted the colorful boats of the Mediterranean fishermen drawn up on the beach or floating in the harbor. "While [Dufy] remained devoted to a sustained chromaticism, he arranged his forms in a tiered perspective: the greatest emphasis is placed on a rigorous geometrical style which defines the structures repeated throughout the composition. A pivotal work, this painting [another in this series] reveals the influence of Cézanne and anticipates the new direction in which Dufy's experiments were to lead him at the beginning of 1908" (D. Perez-Tibi, Dufy, New York, 1989, p. 32).