Referring to Dufy’s nautical scenes, Dora Perez-Tibi points out how works such as Bateaux emphasise ‘the expanse of the sea, leaving only a small amount of space to the sky that sometimes mingles with it. Giving the far distance the same degree of definition as the foreground, Dufy uses it as a vertical backdrop with sailboats and steamers attached to it, portrayed with precision, but with no variation in scale according to their real proximity or distance: for the painter it was enough that they should provide a rhythm to the composition with their flags and raised masts. The decorative harmony of the multicoloured flags and the smoke, mingling their coloured arabesques with those of the clouds, contributes to the evocation of an atmosphere of festivity and jubilation’ (D. Perez-Tibi, Dufy, Paris, 1997, p. 152).
Born to a large family in Le Havre, France in 1877, Dufy expressed an interest in painting from a young age. His upbringing, on the banks of the estuary of the river Seine, had such a profound impact on his artistic vision that he was to later proclaim, ‘I can see the light of the bay of the Seine wherever I am’ (Dufy, quoted in ibid., p. 158). Sure enough, the rich painterly surface of Bateaux has been imbued with a potent alchemy of nostalgia and hometown pride: the saturated blue palette and daintily bobbing boats convey a sense of childlike delight. The colour blue, a symbol of France in its own right, held great significance for Dufy. He provided deeper explanation for this hallmark of his work in a 1951 interview: ‘Blue is the only colour which keeps its own individuality across the spectrum. Take blue with its different nuances, from the darkest to the lightest; it will always be blue, whereas yellow darkens in shadow and fades out in lighter parts, dark red becomes brown and when diluted with white, it isn’t red any more, but another colour: pink’ (Dufy, quoted in P. Courthion, Raoul Dufy, Geneva, 1951, p. 52). Overwhelmed by the wondrous beauty of the Seine, and enamoured with the radiance of the sky, Dufy set out to capture the intensity of colour and light through the medium of paint.
Light, for Dufy, was ‘the soul of colour’ (Dufy, quoted in J. Lancaster, Raoul Dufy, Washington, 1983, p. 5). He was greatly inspired by the Impressionists, none so much as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, and the influence of their rapid, hazy brushstrokes and melding pools of colours on his own sun-drenched leisure scenes is clear. Yet it was Henri Matisse who truly fascinated the artist when, in 1905, he first saw his seminal painting Luxe, calme et volupté of 1904, at the Salon des Indépendants. Seduced and emboldened by its bright and daring Fauvist tones, Dufy transformed the use of colour in his works, experimenting with vivid hues and bold contours, and instilling in his paintings a sense of luminosity. The incandescent brilliance of Dufy’s earlier Fauvist compositions is retained in his more mature style, evident in the vibrancy of colour and loose application of paint. In works such as the present, Dufy masterfully encapsulates the ungraspable, transmutable qualities of glimmering, shimmering water: the essence of its fluidity and movement can be traced within his broad and melting brushmarks. As the artist himself declared, ‘Unhappy the man who lives in a climate far from the sea, or unfed by the sparkling waters of a river! … The painter constantly needs to be able to see a certain quality of light, a flickering, an airy palpitation bathing what he sees’ (Dufy, quoted in D. Perez-Tibi, op. cit., p. 158).