Raoul Dufy was twenty-eight when he painted the The Fish Market, Marseille. He had just left the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts where he had attended Léon Bonnat's lessons. He then came under a triple influence: that of the modernist painters Boudin, Corot and Sisley, who were the first to break with a certain type of academicism in their choice of subject, the framing, a more resolute brushstroke, and a thicker use of paint; the influence of the Impressionists Monet, Degas and Seurat, who were concerned with "painting light", with evoking its diffusion, its impact on shapes; and finally, the influence of that moment, that of a young French school, buzzing with revolutionary ideas, which was just about to give rise to Fauvism.
Here Dufy takes up the old subject of the food market, so dear to the 19th-century naturalists. The market is a place buzzing with life, a universe of matter and colour. He chooses a very avant-garde view point, not placing a subject in the foreground, not concentrating on a character. He paints the back of the scenery. The only thing that counts is the immediacy of the moment, the instantaneous impression.
The painting is divided into three distinct horizontal areas, three bands of colour which, while retaining their dependency on the shapes, are nonetheless very marked. The bottom one has a red dominant; the red of the floor, of a dress, and of a wooden box. In the middle one, the artist concentrates all the action. It is a confusion of people and shapes, without apparent order. The top band has a green dominant; the green of the pillars, of the walls and of the capital. It responds to the first band, but at the same time it is opposed to it, thus creating contrast and perspective. The red stands out while the green gives depth. The action is thus brought out. These wide areas are themselves marked by flat applications of colour: the red of the curtains, the green of the beams, the blue of a shirt, the yellow of a basket. It can be said that the seed of Fauvism, which will soon grow under the influence of Matisse, can clearly be seen here.
Dufy fixes the action like a photographer. He adopts for this an Impressionist style. The picture is painted with thin, long and lively brushstrokes which, juxtaposed in permanent opposition to each other-green / red, red / blue, yellow / red-give a vibrant aspect to the elements of the composition. The aim here is not to paint a subject, but rather to paint the light acting on the subject.
This painting is therefore made of oppositions; opposition of colours, opposition of brushstrokes, of rhythm, of styles, opposition between the light of the outside and the half-light of the market. And these oppositions-or should we say this struggle-paradoxically create a harmony and give the painting its balance.
This work is one of the last in this style. In 1905, Dufy joined Matisse and converted to the fauvist style.