Kees van Dongen
Monte Carlo, Monaco
Summary of Kees van Dongen
Nicknamed "the painter of brothels" van Dongen was especially enthralled with the red light district, depicting its dancers, singers, and prostitutes. He later graduated to painting society ladies, who liked the way he elongated their forms and made them look both elegant and slightly dangerous. Despite unfavorable critical comparisons to Matisse (who loathed him), and the apparent absence of any moral compass (van Dongen traveled with a Nazi propaganda tour in 1941), he left a remarkable record of fashions and social attitudes in Paris over the first half of the 20th century, leading Maurice Vlaminck, fellow Fauve, to name him the ultimate "historian of all the cynical libertinage... of prostitutes, of hysterical worldlings, of unsatisfied strangers, disoriented exotics."
- Urban woman remained his central subject throughout his almost seventy-year career, and included celebrities like Josephine Baker (1926) and Brigitte Bardot (1958). Always unknowable, his overly made-up feline woman, with her flushed cheeks, red lips, and exaggerated darkened eyes, is the ultimate parallel for painting, which van Dongen called "the most perfect of lies".
- Van Dongen brought something new to his urban subjects: a gestural freedom and chromatic abstraction that exceeded what had come before it. When he arrived in Paris, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec could still be seen at its bars and brothels sketching the action, as they had done for almost 30 years. What van Dongen did that was new was to crank up the heat, and pile on the color. His expanses of pigment pool, streak, and occasionally bubble across his canvases like good Dutch beer. These compositions create a direct parallel for what he felt, as opposed to simply what he saw, and lifted the emotive potential of abstraction to new heights.
- Associated with Fauvism early in his career (he participated in their first exhibition), Van Dongen introduced a range of edgy urban subjects that went further in challenging social norms than Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck and others, who stuck to traditional bourgeois themes (still-life, landscape, portraits, and interiors).
Progression of Art
La Chimère Pie
Van Dongen painted La Chimère Pie when he was only eighteen years old, during his years in the family malt house near Rotterdam. The young artist demonstrated a promising talent with this striking work. On a gigantic canvas of two-meter width, he freely represented a mythical hybrid creature - between horse and bird - launching itself towards the sky. The stylization of the imaginary animal, rendered with energetic outlines, is reminiscent of cave painting. Van Dongen used a typical subdued color palette in the Dutch tradition, following the steps of the 16th-century masters Rembrandt and Franz Hals. The explosive Fauve colors are not there yet, but the vibrant spirit already is. La Chimère Pie displays many characteristics the artist would continue to cultivate over the course of his career. The forward, upward thrust (the animal looks as if it would like to gallop right off the canvas) is perhaps indicative of the artist's own aspirations for a brilliant future as a painter. Paintings of horses, long used to capture a feeling of vitality and movement, are a motif to which van Dongen would return in a dynamic circus scene of 1906, The Horsewoman.
Oil on canvas - National Museum of Monaco
Woman With The Big Hat
To audiences of 1906, the bare breasts, heavily made-up face, theatrical hat and accessories, and defiant, direct gaze would have confirmed that the subject of this picture was a prostitute. Like many other artists, but to a degree that excluded other subjects, van Dongen was obsessed with these ladies of the night who populated the bars and brothels near his home. He hired them as models and also, presumably, for sexual favors. Steeped in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, in this painting, he has created a mysterious, sensuous apparition reminiscent of the fleeting feminine entities described in "Les Fleurs du Mal". Regarding us from above (a conceit van Dongen favored in early portrayals of women), her gaze is a mix of defiance and hollowness. The black background is typical of van Dongen's early work in Paris. The makeup, with its intense accents of acid green and velvet red - recalls that of the prostitutes portrayed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (of whose work van Dongen was very much aware) over a decade earlier. Van Dongen goes further in his use of unmixed color - illustrating his exposure to the Fauves and Expressionists. Her long (green) neck, red cheeks and lips, and decorative hat resemble a flowering plant: woman as still life.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Modjesko, Soprano Singer
The Romanian transvestite singer Modejsko is featured in this composition - the epitome of the violent explosions of color of which van Dongen was capable at the height of his engagement with Fauvism. He portrays Modejsko with his mouth open, ready to perform or already performing a song. The eyes seem very far from the mouth, and Modejsko's body is a flat lemon yellow - interrupted by an ardent shade of orange where his eyes are shaded by the hat. The intoxicating palette is a rich departure from reality, emphasizing the feverish excitement generated by his subject's performance, and perhaps also the artifice of Modjesko's gender-bending charms.
Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Nearly half the canvas here, in fact, is devoted to an exuberant, multicolored display of graphic flowers on the dress and shawl, made from the same fabric, draped asymmetrically across the body, exposing the neck and shoulder. The model's dark hair in a bun, adorned with roses, resonates harmoniously with her spectacular attire. Like Woman with the Big Hat, this is essentially a hybrid between still life and figure painting. In contrast to earlier pictures, which rarely show figures beneath the waist, Manila Shawl is an almost full-length figure, reflecting van Dongen's growing mastery of human proportion (with which he had struggled in art school). The manila shawl, with its luscious peonies and Chinese-inspired scenery, evokes Paul Poiret's avant-garde dresses and Matisse's colorful odalisques. It prefigures van Dongen's future trips in Spain and Morocco between 1910 and 1911. It also indicates van Dongen's growing awareness of his own potential to create drama with fashion, which would later be the key to his popularity as a society portraitist.
Oil on canvas - Montreal Museum
In 1907 the Fauve group had already started to unravel. This painting brings together some of the features of the Fauve movement, such as the expressive use of unmixed colors and the pictorial flatness - and introduces an element of realism that marks a turning point in van Dongen's work. Unlike most of his pasty, feline sitter, the whites of the eyes are visible, as is the structure of the face - faint lines at the edges of her mouth emphasize a relaxation in her features, and the Rembrandtian shadow that traverses her forehead indicates that the model is thinking. The drama of her features - large eyes, emphasized with thick black kohl, graceful posture, upswept dark hair, and pale complexion are accentuated by her saturated crimson-red dress. Over the next few years, he would perfect this style of portraiture - a response to the radicalism of Cubism, and its deconstructive vision recently introduced by Picasso and Braque.
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum, New York
Portrait of Guus On a Red Ground
Until their divorce in 1921, van Dongen's wife, Augusta "Guus" van Dongen, born Preitinger, was one of his favorite models. He portrayed her many times over the years. Here, her monumental form dominates the canvas. The low-angle composition, lifted chin and half-closed eyes recall those of Gustav Klimt's biblical and allegorical heroines, among them Hygeia (1900) and Judith (1901). Color contrasts turn the heat up in this picture, turning her into a theatrical vamp. Her electric blue dress, with its plunging neckline, elongates the neck, shaded in strident green (perhaps a nod to Matisse's portraits of his own wife), while her flamboyant red hair merges with the brilliant solid red background.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Steiner (London)
In the Plaza, or Women at the Balustrade
This early work is an amalgam of cultural influences. Having just returned from Spain, van Dongen's brain was filled with sights and sounds of Flamenco dancers - singing and attire that he found exotic. The Chinese-inspired patterns in the shawl draped over the balustrade in this painting are ones that might be found in a Delft vase (the artist had returned to Holland before his trip to Spain). His debt to the great Spanish master Francisco Goya is visible here in the motif - a mysterious woman leaning over a balustrade (recalling the majas and majos that appear regularly in Goya's pictures). It is also indebted to Rembrandt, who portrayed his wife Saskia leaning out a window with her arm across the sill. As in so many of van Dongen's works, the context for this elusive, smiling figure is minimal. This urban scene might take place in Paris, Madrid, or Amsterdam. What is she observing? What is the reason for her smile? Expression here is rendered not through facial features (eyes, nose, and teeth resemble the simplicity of a child's drawing) but with black outlines indicating the structure of the railing and the dynamic pose, using a limited set of tones (yellow, red, blue, black and white). Thanks to the radiating contrast of saturated saffron yellow and lacquer red, the artist successfully conveyed a feeling of undeniable excitement. The artist's focus on the Orientalist textile is also a nod to Matisse - Van Dongen's muse and arch rival.
Oil on canvas - Musée de l'Annonciade, Saint Tropez, France
La Femme aux Chats
In this remarkable painting of an unassuming subject, a young girl seated on a bed plays with kittens, perhaps unaware that she is being watched. As in many of van Dongen's paintings, the environment for the figures is vague, fading out entirely toward the edges. The circular composition calls attention to the rectangular canvas, and displays a self-contained energy that was a persistent feature of van Dongen's work, though the handling of it is especially delicate here.
The girl uses her long hair as a toy (it appears heavy, indicating that she has just emerged from the bath). The lock of hair dangling from the arc of her arm completes an almost full circle that begins with her foot. The black kitten in the foreground, pawing at the air in an effort to grab her hair, appears weightless, as does the body of the girl herself, tilted toward the viewer in an apparently relaxed, yet physically impossible pose that defies gravity. At the far edge of the bed, the other kitten meets our gaze. The smug and cryptic expression recalls that of van Dongen's female models of the period. French art critic Rene Jean applauded him for "seeing woman as a superb animal whose smiles and gestures are gracious, supple, feline and evocative". This composition displays a kinetic energy evident in much of van Dongen's work, at the height of its grace and inventiveness.
Also always present, but rarely as visible as it is here is Van Dongen's background as a graphic artist - this could be a book illustration. Also worth noting is his debt to the Nabis - a group of painters in the late 1890s (including Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Xavier Roussel, Maurice Denis) who championed the decorative impulse in art.
La Femme au Canapé
Femme au Canape shows van Dongen at his height as a society portraitist. His alliance with Paul Poiret, couturier to the stars, had lifted him into circles where there was money to be made in making others look good. Enveloped in fur, this unidentified sitter, with her bird-like features and androgynous frame, epitomizes feminine allure in 1930. Her head is thrown back, as if to enjoy a private fantasy. The relaxed hand and fingers brushing her decollete add to the mood of auto-eroticism. Whether the painter or the woman is responsible for exaggerating the length of her lashes is the type of question van Dongen liked to raise in painting. After 1920, van Dongen had lost his anarchist edge, but his patrons, many of whom were collectors of modern art, enjoyed his loose handling of the brush, and choice of daring colors, textures, and poses. Van Dongen gravitated toward certain compositional layouts, revisiting them over the years. The upward movement toward the right recalls Van Dongen's early painting of a galloping horse.
Musée de Beaux-Arts de Montréal, Québec
Biography of Kees van Dongen
Childhood and Education
Cornelis Theodorus Marie van Dongen, commonly known as Kees van Dongen, was born January 26, 1877 in Delfshaven in the surroundings of Rotterdam, Netherlands. Raised in the Dutch bourgeoisie, to a family of brewers, the young Kees expressed a passion for art early on. He left school at the age of twelve to assist his father at the malthouse, and attended evening classes in a school for design and decorative arts. At sixteen, he enrolled for four years at the Akademie voor Beeldende Kunsten (The Royal Academy of Fine Arts) of Rotterdam, now known as the Willem de Kooning Academy. With earthy toned-down colors, his early work reflected the influence of the Dutch master Rembrandt. At The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, he met and fell in love with a fellow student, Juliana Augusta "Guus" Preitinger. During this time, he roamed the streets of the Red Quarter (known for its houses of prostitution) and the seaport, which inspired his naturalistic drawings for the local newspaper Rotterdamsche Nieuwsblad.
Paris was his next destination. In July 1897, he arrived with a little nest egg from his father and moved to the Butte Montmartre - the neighborhood known for its artists and societal outcasts. Van Dongen was twenty years old and mesmerized by the free spirit of the French capital, where he settled in 1899 to join Guus. He made the acquaintance of Parisian anarchists and was especially impressed by Félix Fénéon, the art critic and artist who championed the Neo-Impressionists. By 1900 Van Dongen had run through his money, and between 1900 and 1903, did all sorts of odd jobs and nearly quit painting. Following his marriage to Guus in 1901, his wife gave birth to a son, who died two days after. With the help of Théophile Steinlein, a Swiss Art Nouveau painter, he worked as a draughtsman for several satirical newspapers, such as L'Assiette au Beurre, Frou Frou, Le Rabelais, and Gil Blas. Unlike his Impressionist-inspired landscapes from the Netherlands, Paris, and Normandy, with their subdued colors, Van Dongen's pictures from this era employ a much brighter palette, and the prostitutes who walked the streets of Montmartre became the primary subject of his paintings.
In 1904 Ambroise Vollard, a major Paris art dealer, invited van Dongen to participate in the Salon des Indépendants, and the following year, he exhibited work in the memorable Salon d'Automne along with Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck, Albert Marquet, and André Derain. These exhibitions marked the birth of Fauvism, and solidified van Dongen's position among the founders of the two most important early avant garde movements of the 20th century. In 1905, van Dongen and his wife Guus welcomed a baby daughter named Dolly and the whole family moved to the Bateau-Lavoir, a ramshackle building in Montmartre that housed a number of bohemian artists, including the young Pablo Picasso, who nicknamed van Dongen "The Bateau-Lavoir Kropotkine," (a reference to the Russian anarchist and allusion to van Dongen's own self-professed anarchist inclinations). Picasso introduced him to his mistress and muse Fernande Olivier who became the Dutch painter's second favorite model after Guus, much to the dismay of the Spanish painter and van Dongen's wife.
A distinct personality among the Fauves, often portrayed as Matisse's rival, van Dongen was like a sponge, absorbing every avant-garde style he encountered, including that of Max Pechstein, forerunner of the Dresden-based movement Die Brücke, whose bold, non-realistic colors and daring figurative topics pushed van Dongen even further in the direction of Expressionism. Pechstein invited him to participate in several Expressionist exhibitions between 1908 and 1910. Vollard bought some of van Dongen's paintings from this exhibition and with the proceeds, the artist was able to upgrade to a home in the 9th arrondissement and rent a separate studio near the Folies Bergere, a bar and dance hall at the heart of Montmartre. Van Dongen continued to focus on this nocturnal world and its female bodies for hire; from the cabaret singer to the prostitute.
In 1910, with the support of the prestigious Bernheim-Jeune gallery, Van Dongen gained critical and public recognition. He took advantage of his recent commercial success to travel: returning first to Holland, then visiting Italy, Spain, and Morocco during the winter of 1910. He was dazzled by the Flamenco music, dance, and lavish costumes of Andalusia, which deeply influence his work of the following decade. On the threshold of World War I, Van Dongen was an accomplished painter, one increasingly visible in the circles of the Parisian elite, diligently attending their salons and social gatherings. He had moved to Montparnasse, a more upscale neighborhood, and circulated among influential socialites, including the French couturier Paul Poiret, who became his close friend, and the eccentric Italian heiress and art patron Marquise Luisa Casati. Hyped on this glittering world of models, celebrities and starlets, he threw hedonistic parties in his studio on rue Denfert-Rochereau. In 1914 Guus and Dolly, who were visiting The Netherlands, got stuck there until the end of the war and when they returned in 1918 Van Dongen refused to receive them. He had taken a mistress, Jasmy Jacob, director of a haute couture house, with whom he would live until 1927. Jacob helped him make his way up the social ladder, which ensured a steady stream of portrait commissions and financial security for the rest of his life. His divorce from Guus was finalized in 1921.
In 1926 he was awarded the Legion of Honor and became a naturalized French citizen in 1929. By 1930, he had abandoned the anarchist leanings of his earlier career and embraced the role of society painter. At the age of sixty-three, he met Marie-Claire Huguen, a much younger woman with whom he had a son, Jean Marie, in 1940. He continued to chronicle the rich and famous through the 1930s and 40s. These works remain a vital record of the mood in Paris during the inter-war period. In 1941, Arno Brecker, official sculptor under the Third Reich, invited Van Dongen on an all-expenses-paid propaganda tour in Nazi Germany, and he accepted the invitation, along with twelve other artists, including Derain, Vlaminck, and Friesz. From the perspective of the largely anti-Nazi French art circles in which he moved, this was an unforgivable lapse in judgment, one that permanently tarnished his reputation.
After the war, he was forbidden from exhibiting at the Salon d'Automne for one year, and his work fell out of favor, even with some critics who had once praised it. He and Huguen married in 1953 and in 1959 they moved to stylish Monaco, where they bought a house that he named "Le Bateau Lavoir," a nostalgic reference to the building he had enjoyed inhabiting with other bohemian artists as a youth. In 1967, the Museum of Modern Art in Paris staged a retrospective honoring the 90-year-old painter's work. The exhibition traveled to Rotterdam later that year, but was not favorably reviewed. The artist died shortly after on May 28, 1968 in Monaco, in relative anonymity.
The Legacy of Kees van Dongen
Van Dongen absorbed all the styles that converged on Paris in the early 1900s and made out of them something new. His approach to the female body as a sensuous surface, devoid of psychic depth, gave later painters, including Willem de Kooning, Tom Wesselmann, and Yves Klein permission to treat the female body as a metaphor for the painted canvas. In addition, van Dongen's path as a portraitist prefigures the interaction between art and commerce that would become central to art after the 1950s. Available for hire, much like the prostitutes he painted, as an irreverent socialite and friend of the upper classes, painting all that glitters with a mixture of appreciation and disdain, his cultivated irony paved the way for Andy Warhol. Van Dongen has never received the critical acclaim afforded other Fauves, among them Derain, Dufy, and Vlaminck, and whether or not he deserves it is still an open question. What is certain is that modern art would not be the same without him. His oeuvre sits squarely at the intersection between Fauvism and Expressionism, and as an artist, he took risks that pointed the way to the future.