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An eye for beauty in Le Havre

Le Havre vintage postcard

‘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.

Today, still cloudy. View just outside Le Havre's wonderful MuMa gallery.
Today, still cloudy. View just outside Le Havre’s wonderful MuMa gallery.

Painting happiness

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.

Book of wonderful images, comparing and contrasting the work of Jean and Raoul.
Book comparing and contrasting the work of Jean and Raoul, plus insights into their relationship. French and English.

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.

From The Electric Fairy by Raoul Dufy with help from his brother
From The Electric Fairy by Raoul Dufy with help from his brother

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.

A pretty scene from this homage to electricity by Raoul Dufy
A pretty scene from this homage to electricity

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.

Dramatic scene from the Electric Fairy by the brothers Dufy, on view at the Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris
Dramatic scene from the Electric Fairy by the brothers Dufy, on view at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris

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

A few electric lights from La Fée Electricité
A few electric lights from La Fée Electricité

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

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.

Some sources:




6 thoughts on “An eye for beauty in Le Havre

  1. What a fascinating and sad inside look into the life of Raoul Dufy and the truth about some of his paintings! It was wonderful to find out that Jean did exercise his talents in developing Limoges and that he was recognized for that innovation, at least.

    1. Hello Bespoke Traveler, thank you for your comment. It was a shock for us to discover this story, but it has also been a joy to discover Jean’s work. There is sometimes a softness in his paintings lacking in those of Raoul? Both fabulous artists.

  2. Ive seen jeans work. it is similar. Im not sure how popular Raouls work was.
    Sad to say there are tons of great artists that dont get recognition. VanGogh supposedly only sold a handful of his works while he was alive.

  3. One could easily mistake some of Jean’s paintings for Raoul’s.
    Thank you for revealing this interesting story to me.

    I took some time to look through work of Jean Dufy. He was certainly very good painter, and it’s a pity that he didn’t continue development of his own artistic language. I suppose he was enchanted by his brother’s playful and flamboyant style and freedom as we are nowadays. I can only imagine what kind of passion he got that burned up in the shadow of his brother’s sun…

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