‘My eyes were made to erase all that is ugly’ said Raoul Dufy, the fabulous artist from Le Havre.
That was not all he erased, as his brother Jean would learn to his horror.
Born into a huge Le Havre family, brothers Raoul (b.1877) and Jean Dufy (b.1888) were adept at ignoring the grim and grimy of their busy hometown , focusing on sunlight and colour, as their enchanting paintings show.
Le Havre was then a major port for people starting new lives in New York and New Orleans. The excitement and hope radiating from these brave travellers, their optimism for their future, perhaps influenced how the brothers saw the world.
Neither started their careers as artists, or had the money to do so. At 14 Raoul, the independent eldest of 11 siblings, was working for a coffee importing company.
When he was 18, aware for some time that there was more to life than coffee, Raoul took an art evening classes. As his talent was revealed his family did not discourage him, but could not support an artist.
Happily as the twentieth century arrived he won a scholarship to study in Paris.
Another stifling office
A little later Léon Dufy, the sensible father, found younger son Jean a clerks job at an import firm.
Jean later wrote “The office atmosphere was stifling, although my job as a commercial agent meant I spent time at a harbour among all the exotic products being unloaded from the cargo ships like so much treasure.”
Another creative soul, Jean was encouraged by Raoul to paint.
Always close, by 1912 Raoul had invited Jean to join him in Paris were he soaked up ideas and influences from Durain, Picasso, Braques and Apollinaire.
Plus of course Raoul, the brother he loved and admired.
A taste for beauty
All progressed well for the brothers over the next few years. Raoul, established as a innovator and Fauve (art’s ‘Wild Beasts’ of colour), becomes perhaps better known but their paintings styles continue to be complementary.
Both took their art beyond canvas. Raoul’s taste for beauty led him to the world of fashion and fabric design for couturier Paul Poiret. Jean’s designs for Haviland Limoges porcelain won medals and marked a new vibrant era of design for the company.
The electric light fairy
By 1936 although Jean’s art is well known, Raoul is the star. The International Exposition (World Fair) will be coming to Paris in 1937. Raoul Dufy is commissioned to create an artistic homage to the new ‘Electricité’; 250 huge painted panels to be placed against a gigantic concave wall within the Palais de la Lumière et de l’Electricité.
Raoul knows he cannot complete the work on his own and asks Jean, who understands his art so well, for help to create his dream ‘La Fée Electricité’ The Electric Fairy.
Jean wrote about La Fée Electricité:
“In 1936, Raoul Dufy asked them to request my services. I have a commission, he said, for the 1937 International Exposition for the C.P.D.E. They have asked me to paint a huge mural, 60 meters long by 10 meters high, on the theme of Electricity. I can only do this with your help. I was flattered by his confidence and accepted.’
Jean and André Robert his assistant gave up their own work to help Raoul and ensure the mural was a success.
Triumph and disaster
‘La Fée Electricité created a sensation. Raoul Dufy received his compliments graciously and was charming throughout the many press interviews. To this day La Fée Electricité is a credit to him.
Raoul never once spoke of Jean and André’s contribution.
In a memoir some years later an aggrieved Jean described working on La Fée Electricité and how he:
- Travelled the world finding portraits of 919 scientists and scenes representing their scientific discoveries.
- Sought guidance from a prominent Sorbonne professor on should be included in this mural homage.
- Dressed actors from the Comédie-Française in historic costumes, diligently sourced during his travels, to pose and be painted in the ‘master’s studio’.
- made numerous sketches and compositions to connect scenes and create movement throughout the painting…
But Raoul Dufy never mentioned his brother’s involvement and Jean was not recognised for his efforts.
Bitter hearts hidden by the sun
They both continued to paint for many years. Pictures of sunshine, blue seas and happiness that never revealed any bitterness, anguish or loss.
Had Raoul always thought of his brother’s art as just a poor imitation of his own?
They never spoke again, so could not discuss it.
More than just a port
- Find some time to visit the stylish André Malraux Modern Art Museum (MuMa) by the Le Havre seafront and admire Raoul Dufy’s vibrant paintings (no Jean that we could find).
- Read about Raoul Dufy’s discovery of light and colour in Honfleur
- Watch a ‘The invisible moustache of Raoul Dufy’ (click on the illustration of Raoul at the bottom of this post). The story of his life told in a charming 1955 animation.
We did not expect this postcard to take us from Le Havre to Paris, but it did.
Take the train from Le Havre to Paris in just over 2hrs and visit the Musée d’Art Moderne (MAM) to meet the Electric Fairy.
- ‘In 1936, Raoul Dufy asked them to request my services‘
- Raoul and Jean Dufy: Complicité et rupture