Jacques Chalom des Cordes will include this work in his forthcoming Van Dongen catalogue critique being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
Jacques Chalom des Cordes has pointed out the existence of a gouache dating from 1904 which is closely related to La danse de Carpeaux, suggesting that it was also done during this year, placing it on the very eve of the Fauve revolution, a tempest that burst on the Paris art world during the Salon d'Automne of 1905. Van Dongen was working independently and inexorably toward a radically modern synthesis of color and form, which would culminate in his own brand of Fauvism. To these efforts he contributed an element that was distinctively personal: his passion for subjects from modern life that were as startling and provocative as the painterly means in which he dressed them.
A self-taught artist, Van Dongen drew on influences in an entirely intuitive manner. Since 1897, when he first arrived in Paris from Rotterdam--he settled in Montmartre two years later--he had admired Toulouse-Lautrec's all-inclusive, unflinching and sardonic eye for life on the streets and after hours. He was moreover drawn to the work of Van Gogh, a fellow Dutchman and another autodidact, for its blunt emotional intensity, and the sheer honesty and directness of his style. Unlike Matisse, Marquet, Friesz, Dufy and Braque, who arrived at Fauvism through the precedent of the cerebral and stylized art of Gauguin, and the color theories of Signac's neo-impressionism, Van Dongen's approach was always instinctive and visceral. He was not interested in ideas about painting; he was after something more compellingly human and alive, an art that would mirror the present.
Van Dongen exhibited six paintings at the Salon des Indépendents during the spring of 1904, and later that year he had his first solo exhibition, at Ambroise Vollard's gallery. In his famous Carrousel series of 1904 he literally exploded the systematic discipline of neo-impressionism into proto-Fauve bits and shards of paint. A reviewer wrote, "In a second instantly, as soon as it strikes him, that's how it appears on canvas and paper; he can't do it any other way for he feels that the work would lose all its inner vigour, and refinement, and truth" (quoted in N. Bondil and J.-M. Bouhours, Van Dongen, exh. cat., Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2008, p. 92).
In La danse de Carpeaux, Van Dongen has depicted well-heeled revelers as they attend a masked ball at the Opéra de Paris. The painting mixes fantasy and social satire--Van Dongen always maintained his sharp illustrator's eye for capturing the foibles of the haute-bourgeoisie. The title refers to Carpeaux's sculpture La Danse, which adorned the façade of the Opera (today a replica may be viewed on site; the original sculpture is in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris). The sculpture was widely condemned for the lewd abandon of the nude female dancers when it was unveiled in 1869. Van Dongen did not actually describe the sculpture as Carpeaux executed it; instead he has presented it in the form of a contemporary tableau vivant using artist's models or rouged demi-mondaines wearing the fetish accoutrements of the bordello and contemporary pornography. Nude tableaux vivants were staged in night clubs during the late 19th century as an erotic entertainment. The first owner of this painting, who acquired it directly from the Van Dongen, asked the artist why he depicted Carpeaux's nymphs in garters and stockings. Van Dongen, thinking of the scandal that the sculpture had caused in its day, replied with a wry smile that he did not want the women in his painting to be considered similarly indecent.
(fig. 1) Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, La Danse, 1865-1869. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Photograph by Thierry Ollivier, RMN.