Born and raised in Le Havre, a port town in Normandy, Raoul Dufy left school to work as an inspector of foreign ships importing coffee from South America at age fourteen. Upon enrolling in Le Havre's École des Beaux-Arts at eighteen, Dufy was introduced to the seascapes of Monet and Pissarro. Inspired by the Impressionist masters' skill in depicting the sea and sky, the young Dufy chose to pursue a career in painting (see fig. 1).
While much indebted to the Impressionists, Dufy took cues from Cézanne and the Fauves to create flat depictions that relied less on the impact of light and more on the impact of color. Speaking on the Dufy brothers’ relationship to color, scholar Charles Sala notes, “Raoul and Jean were grounded in a sunny, Latin, Apollonian culture. Exploring the pleasures of seeing and of the solar spectrum, they reveled in the retinal delectation of colour... For the two brothers, colour spoke to the joy-inducing function of the retina, creating a luminous, immediate pleasure in which chromatic abundance obscures the subject just as it captivates the gaze” (Charles Sala, Raoul et Jean Dufy: Complicité et rupture
, Paris, 2011, p. 38).
Les Voiliers à Deauville conveys a sense of stillness in the midst of a frenetic scene, in which the lines of opposing objects intersect and create a cohesive landscape where the sea is associated more with commerce than nature. The present work is a departure from more Fauve depictions of ships in Dufy’s early paintings (see fig. 2). This later period is distinguished by the distribution of light and color. By this time, Dufy had developed personal artistic principles, “I was spontaneously led towards what was to become my real preoccupation. I had discovered a system, whose theory was this: to follow the light of the sun is a waste of time. Light in painting is something completely different: it is light distributed throughout the composition, a ‘couleur-lumière’” (Dora Perez-Tibi, Dufy, Paris, 1989, pp. 23-24).