Created during a time of important transition in Dufy’s career, La plage du Havre was painted when the artist began to explore a new, vibrant and free coloristic vocabulary inspired by the ground-breaking art of the fauvist movement. Dufy had first come across the Fauves in the spring of 1905 at the Salon des Indépendants, where his encounter with Henri Matisse’s Luxe, calme, et volupté left him awestruck. Its boldly subjective use of pure color encouraged Dufy to free himself from a direct representation of reality and instead push his art into new realms of subjective vision. “At the sight of that picture,” he recalled, “I understood the new raison d’être of painting, and Impressionist realism lost all its charm for me as I looked at this miracle of creative imagination at work in color and line. I immediately grasped the mechanics of art” (quoted in M. Giry, Fauvism: Origins and Development, New York, 1982, p. 135). Returning to his native Le Havre that summer, Dufy’s depictions of life in the coastal hubs of Trouville and Sainte-Adresse became invigorated by a new sense of vibrancy and color.
The Normandy coast had undergone a remarkable transformation during the first half of the 19th century as the development of fast rail connections to and from the capital led to a thriving summertime tourist industry in the region. Traditional fishing villages along the Côte Fleurie quickly developed into seaside resorts, complete with new villas, grand hotels and casinos that catered to the fashionable Parisians who travelled there in droves for sojourns by the sea during the summer months (fig. 1). Eugène Boudin and Claude Monet were both drawn to the area in the 1860s and 1870s, and recorded life on the modern beach, painting the holidaymakers as they traversed the promenades and gathered on the sandy beaches to reap the health benefits of the fresh sea air. The works they produced helped to shape the identity of the Normandy coastline in the public imagination, influencing the perception of Parisians looking to escape the overwhelming heat and commotion of city life for the more relaxing sea-side location. However, whereas many of the later impressionist views of the area were selectively edited to emphasize the untouched, idyllic aspects of the landscape, Dufy’s beach scenes from the early 1900s revel in the bustling atmosphere of the holiday resorts. Focusing on the hotels, cafes, and cabanas for hire, as well as the stylish people that populated them, Dufy threw a spotlight on to the vibrant, energetic holiday mood of towns such as Deauville, Trouville and Le Havre.
La plage du Havre stands out as a particularly detailed and complex composition from this lively period. The crowd of beachgoers filling the promenade and pier are seen from above, allowing a wide view of the beach and buildings in the distance. One can imagine the view out to sea being particularly picturesque based on the time of day the light in the present picture evokes, however it appears that most visitors on the pier are directing their attention to the beachgoers below. This voyeuristic exchange can be explained by the very desire to see and be seen while on holiday at the seaside. Constantly on view, it had become a fashionable thing to wear one's finest garments at all times, even buying special costumes for holidays, to parade in front of the beachgoers. Dufy captures this holiday tradition in the most animated way, using wide, fluid brushstrokes to evoke the buzzing activity of the seaside.