Over the years Dufy’s work has, indeed, found itself reproached. As a near-contemporary of great Post-Impressionists like Picasso and Matisse, Dufy has suffered by comparison, his hallmark exuberance accused of mere decorativeness. But beneath the light and playful surface of his paintings, drawings and watercolours, Dufy’s project was a serious one. ‘The painter,’ he said, ‘has his own vision… he isolates his object and creates his own light for it with his colour.’ For Dufy, the artist’s vision made the object ‘no longer part of nature but of art’. It was an idea that paved the way not just for abstraction, but Conceptualism also, and left behind it one of the most jubilant bodies of work in 20th-century art.
The son of an accountant, Dufy took night classes in drawing while working for a coffee-importing business in the city of his birth, Le Havre. In 1900, he won a scholarship to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and became enthralled to the Fauves and Matisse, whose masterpiece Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904) impressed Dufy greatly. Dufy would never lose his Fauvist belief in colour but, by 1907, he was becoming interested in Cezanne and the Cubist ideas of form.
His work as the fabric designer for celebrated couturier Paul Poiret, beginning in 1912, marked the outset of a fusion of these ideas into his own inimitable style. Dufy combined a Fauvist obsession with colour, a Cubist reimagining of the visual plane, and an illustrator’s use of the graphic black outline to create masterpieces such as The Wheatfield (1929) and Open Window at Saint-Jeannet (c.1926–27).
Towards the end of his career, Dufy was afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis. In order to paint, he was often forced to tie the brush to his wrist. In 1952, the year before his death, he was awarded the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale.