Raoul Duffy: Biography, Paintings & Textiles

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Sometimes an artist excels in multiple mediums. In this lesson, explore the life and career of French artist Raoul Duffy, who painted and designed textiles.

Beginnings of a Life in Art

Raoul Dufy (1877 - 1953) was born into a large family in the seaside city of Le Havre, France. He loved drawing, but as the oldest of nine children he had to help the family earn a living. So the young man worked during the day for a coffee importer and took night classes in art. In 1900, upon getting a scholarship, Dufy began attending the Ecole des Beaux - Arts in Paris. It was an exciting time to be an artist in Paris, because the rise of different modern creative styles were bringing massive changes in art.

At first, Dufy painted in an Impressionist style, but in 1905 he saw a Matisse painting at an exhibit. It opened his eyes to Fauvism, an art movement full of expressive bold contours and extreme patches of color. Color always caught Dufy's eye. While he later incorporated elements of Cubism into his work (like multiple viewpoints, angular forms and fractured perspective), he never lost his interest in bright, saturated colors.

Painting Style and Subjects

The painting style for which Dufy is best known is deceptively light and playful. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he created works that emphasize sketchy outlines and bright colors. Sometimes the surface almost looks like Dufy has playfully added calligraphic lines to the scene. The colors are vivid because Dufy tended to paint on light or white backgrounds.

Unlike many artists of the time who painted canvases of inner emotions or unstable perspectives, Dufy's subjects were lighter, which sometimes caused later critics to downplay his skills. Dufy focused on leisure culture: things like horse races, concerts and, not surprising for someone who grew up by the seaside, beaches, boats and regattas. He also portrayed moments of everyday life like train stations and city scenes.

Raoul Dufy, Train en Gare, late 1920s - 1930s
Dufy painting of train station

In 1909, on a trip to Germany, Dufy learned about woodcuts, prints made by cutting images into blocks of wood that are then inked and pressed onto paper. A little later, poet, editor and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire invited Dufy to do woodcut illustrations for a book. The book caught the attention of a couture fashion designer named Paul Poiret, who then commissioned Dufy to design textiles.

Textile Designs of Raoul Dufy

Dufy proved an excellent textile designer. Attentive to detail, he studied fabric printing processes to understand dyes and translated his woodcut skills into beautiful bold patterns--sometimes with animal and bird themes, at other times flowers, vines and patterns. Through the late 1910s and 1920s, Dufy's textile designs proved very popular. They fit perfectly into the Art Deco style of the time, which celebrated the machine age and featured geometric shapes, stylized figures, bold colors and contrasts. Art Deco was then the prevailing design style in Europe and the United States.

Image of Paul Poiret fashions from 1911 with women in flowing harem pants. The pattern at right could be by Dufy.
Poiret fashions from 1911

Dufy worked with Poiret from 1909 until 1912, when he was lured away by the large silk manufacturer Bianchini-Ferier. Poirer then continued to use Dufy's designs on textiles from that company.

Raoul Dufy, design for silk handkerchief, manufactured by Bianchini-Ferier, ca. 1915
Silk handkerchief by Dufy

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