Pivoines et Roses: The French Connection

On the north wall of the music room facing toward the garden hangs an impressionistic oil painting entitled Pivoines et Roses signed Dyf in the lower right corner. The painting of peonies and roses in an earthenware vase sitting on a cloth covered table would naturally appeal to Alice Callaway’s love of flowers. In fact, although she regularly displayed greenhouse plants and flower arrangements, it is perhaps the best example of her ‘bringing the garden’ into the home.

An old string tag, along with a receipt in our records, indicates the painting was purchased in 1966 from the W. E. Browne Decorating Company in Atlanta. David Byers, an interior designer specializing in historic houses, including the White House, and his associate Charles B. Townsend were helping Mrs. Callaway refresh the music room with a French theme. They proposed using this flower painting and it seemed to perfectly fit the setting.  So who was this artist Dyf, where did he paint and how did this painting end up at the estate? Dyf was born Marcel Dreyfus in 1899 in Paris. He started his career as an engineer but soon decided to become a painter. In 1922 he moved to Arles in the south of France where he studied to be a painter and set up a studio. Dyf had very little formal training but derived his inspiration from the great masters he most admired including Rembrandt, Vermeer and Tiepolo. He eventually moved back to Paris but, with the German invasion of France, returned to Arles and participated in the French Resistance.

In succeeding years he lived in Paris and Saint-Paul-de-Vence.  He began spending his summers in Cannes and it was here in 1956 he married Claudine Godat, who was twenty-one at the time. They purchased a hunting lodge at Bois d’Arcy near Versailles which became their main home. During the 1950’s his work received the attention of British and American art collectors. Frost & Reed, a London Gallery, began handling most of his sales and it is probable W. E. Browne obtained the painting from them. In fact, on the back an old tag reads: “english registry #fr 36712, marcel dyf, tag #53 “pivoines roses.” Most certainly, the letters FR indicate Frost & Reed and although undated, we suspect it was painted in the early 1960’s.

Dyf died in 1985 and his paintings have become very popular with art collectors. He is well-known for his French landscapes, floral still lifes and portraits, most of which were of his wife Claudine, who he considered the perfect model. Dyf usually sketched out his compositions in charcoal in the open air, returning immediately to his studio to paint them with a rainbow of colors. He always painted standing, with great vigor and, while his traditional paintings appear to be simple and uncomplicated, the process of creating them was complex, rigorous and disciplined. Pivoines et Roses is indeed a treasure and the beautiful colors so skilfully sculpted with bold palette knife strokes make it a sight to behold.