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 - 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