Looking at "Les Bateaux," one thinks this painting may be the quintessential report on a bright blue morning filled with sailboats leaving a harbor. We experience the same buoyant heartlift from the painting that we would from the actual sight of sails being raised and boats breezing jubilantly seaward. Lighthearted scenes like this one appealed to Raoul Dufy's temperament but behind the pleasing anecdote, beyond the marvelously accomplished draftsmanship, is the serious artist who presented some of this century's most interesting color theories even while he charmed the viewer.
Raoul Dufy was born and raised in Le Havre, the great northern French port city. Coming from a large family of scant finances but rich cultural interests, he had to take a job at the age of fourteen as a clerk for coffee importers. The work included checking cargoes on freighters in the harbor. He later remembered, "On the bridge and docks I reveled in the light peculiar to estuaries." This interest in light was one of the bases for his interest in painting. In a letter to a friend which he wrote from the vantage point of a successful career he wrote, "You refer to my struggle for color, and rightly so, as all my life has gone into that. But I should like to be fully understood, and to be quite sure that I am, I should prefer your saying 'my struggle for light,' which is the soul of color. Color without light is lifeless. What I have always been after is an order of color, of physical color as it comes from our tubes, an order that makes those tubes yield light. Without light forms fail to come to life, colors alone not being enough to make them stand out. We perceive light first of all, color afterwards."
When Dufy was fifteen he enrolled for evening courses at the Le Havre School of Fine Arts. So impressive were his talent, dedication and productivity that, eight years later, in 1900, he received a small monthly grant from the Le Havre municipality, which enabled him to go to Paris to study. He ran through several painting styles before the day that he looked at his tubes of colors and his brushes and asked himself: "How, with what I have here, can I succeed in rendering, not what I see, but what is, what has an existence for me, my reality? . . ."m He set to work taking from nature the few colors that suited his needs.
In "Les Bateaux," Dufy achieved with only blue, red, ochre, black and white a luminous, vivid scene. His color theories varied radically from the classic theories in which dark to light shading of colors was intended to give the effect of solidity to objects as well as the impression of light and shadow. Dufy rejected not only this chiar-oscuro but even local tones (that is, the attempt to color an object just as it appears to the eye) in favor of a single ambient tone. In this canvas the ambient tone is, naturally, blue. In fact, about seven-eights of the painting is blue -- bright blue but in varying shades mixed with white or black. However, the shades and tones are not confined to objects but flow through sky, clouds, buildings, sails and water very casually. A narrow vertical swath of yellow ochre on the extreme right edge (again including sky, clouds, buildings and water) gives an unmistakably sunny atmosphere.The balancing light area on the left edge is part of the ambient tone in a whitish blue which serves to pick out the outlined statue in the harbor.
A few objects of localized color emphasize what Dufy wanted to emphasize: a darker ochre repeated in the sails of the two left-hand boats; an almost pure white sail on the farthest boat, which imparts a dazzling brightness; only two small touches of pure red, on the hull of the left-hand boat and part of the flag; one touch of dull green in the nearest boat. With this economy of means Dufy convinces us that he has painted a completely colorful scene -- his realitym filled with light and motion.
He felt his real achievement lay in the demonstration of his many theories, not only of color but also of perspective and composition -- and attitude. He wrote, "The subject itself is of no account; what matters is the way it is presented. . . . Even so, try as I might, I can only give you a tiny scrap of the joy in my heart."