St James's Palace signed, inscribed and dated 'St James [sic] Palace/ Raoul Dufy/ 1935' (lower centre) oil on canvas 33 x 41cm (13 x 16 1/8in). Painted in 1935
PROVENANCE Anon. sale, Sotheby's, New York, 6 November 2003, lot 243. Acquired from the above by the present owner.
LITERATURE M. Lafaille, Raoul Dufy, catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Tome IV, Geneva, 1977, no. 1550bis, (illustrated p. 121) and titled St James Palace.
St James's Palace was executed in the midst of two trips Dufy made to England in the mid 1930s. In both 1934 and 1937 he visited the races at Ascot, Epsom and Goodwood, as well as the regattas at Cowes and Henley, studying the pleasurable middle-class scenes of modern life with which he became synonymous. Following his first trip to London the artist painted several views of the soldiers at St James's Palace and the Changing the Guard, and his close friend Pierre Courthion made note of Dufy's love of Britain and the Royal Family in his 1955 publication:
'He loved England English correctness and English customs, English club life, sport and traditions. In 1937 he made a watercolour of King George VI's coronation, and he told me shortly before he died that his greatest pleasure would have been to go to London and make studies of the various phases of Queen Elizabeth's Coronation.' (P. Courthion, Dufy (1877-1953), exh. cat., London, The Faber Gallery, 1955, p.18).
Whilst the palace building itself dominates the present composition, it is beautifully balanced by the lyrical washes of lilac, blue and orange in the sweeping sky above. Through the use of complementary colours Dufy thus attains a harmony which he sought to disrupt in his later canvases. Having researched colour theory in the early 1900s, the artist perhaps wished to return to his early Fauvist roots at the end of his career.
Dufy had first discovered the vibrant art of the Fauvists at the 1905 Salon d'Automne, an epiphany which heralded his transition from the more traditional Impressionist style. The artist regarded his first view of Matisse's Luxe, Calme et Volupté as a pivotal moment in his own development and indeed the sumptuous palette, subjects and energy of the older artist's work can surely be seen in Dufy's own.
Dufy was skilled in building up layers of paint carefully, ensuring the pigments did not mix '[he] loved to make a cloud of opaque colour float in a sky of marvellously transparent varnish' (Raoul Dufy, exh. cat., London, Opera Gallery, 2005, p. 4). The artist applied these shimmering tints with a flat broad brush before using a finer tipped brush to draw on to the coloured spaces, creating graceful outlines and curlicues which reveal his talent as a draughtsman. This, combined with the Cézanne-like flattened picture plane formed of cascading tiles of paint, perhaps looks back to his fifteen year partnership with the Lyons-based textile company Bianchini-Férier.
Dufy's fluid technique lent itself well to the use of watercolour, but in order to achieve the same effortless effect in his oil paintings he used a unique emulsion created by his friend and restorer Jacques Maroger. The sky and background in St James's Palace thus display the luminosity that we see in his works on paper.
Movement is introduced through the diagonal hatching in the sky, which continues through the palace edifice itself. Colour also seeps out beyond Dufy's drawn boundaries the ochre brown of the palace façade spills onto the ground before it, forming a carpet below the feet of the standing guards. The artist had discovered that 'the eye captures an object's tone before its shape; a realisation that Dufy would meditate for a long time to come. He concluded that colour and shape are consequently independent, and that the artist should never trap one within the limits of the other. In this way, colour can escape shape, thereby creating movement' (op. cit., p. 4.)
St James's Palace thus presents the viewer with a familiar London landmark, re-imagined with a vivid palette, fluid outlines, tilted picture plane and separation of colour from subject which mark the composition as characteristically Raoul Dufy.