The Dutch painter Kees van Dongen first arrived in Paris in 1897. But it is the year 1904 which marks his official entry into the Paris scene, when an abundance of his paintings were on exhibit at Ambroise Vollard's gallery, the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d'Automne. By 1909 Van Dongen had secured a comfortable place within the Parisian circle that included fellow artists André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. Following a 1908 show at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune of sixty-four canvases, Van Dongen moved with his wife and young daughter Dolly to a new, larger home on the Rue Saulnier. His relationship with this dealer would soon grow into a lucrative seven-year contract, and as Gaston Diehl points out, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune presented Van Dongen with this contract "one year before offering one to Matisse" (Van Dongen, New York, 1969, p. 49).
Initially classified as a Fauvist, Van Dongen's use of bold color would remain a central characteristic of his oeuvre. But his eagerness to embrace harsher, more brutal tones exposed a disparity between Van Dongen and his ultimately more harmonious peers. Unsurprisingly, the German Expressionists appreciated his daring style; Van Dongen's paintings were exhibited at the Flechtheim gallery in Düsseldorf in 1908, and Hermann Max Pechstein enthusiastically invited him to participate in an event of the Brücke group.
As with the German Expressionists, prostitutes represented one of Van Dongen's most common subjects. As a young man in The Netherlands, Van Dongen lived above a brothel in Rotterdam's red-light district of the Zandstraat, and the boulevards of Paris's Montmartre proved to be similarly inspiring. After traveling to the Mediterranean in 1910, Van Dongen also became increasingly drawn to painting exoticized nudes and Oriental dancers. In the catalogue for the exhibition Van Dongen: From the North and the South, Maïthé Vallès-Bled identifies the artist's "vigorous, sensual and joyful appetite for woman, which he tirelessly painted, as if he could endlessly vary his fascination for her" (Musée de Lodève, 2004, p. 19).
The model depicted in the present portrait represents one of these endless variations. Though she remains unidentified, she is neither the garish prostitute nor the beveiled gypsy. Her lack of confrontational sexuality renders her even more alluring; she is more mysterious for her lack of exoticism. Rather than the thick, black eyeliner of Van Dongen's aggressive streetwalkers, this young woman's blue eyes are framed by feminine lashes, half-obscured by drowsy lids. Her cheeks are rosy with natural warmth instead of painted-on rouge, and the redness of her lips is more inviting than scathing. Her chaste dress is a virginal shade of blue, and her delicate locket appears in place of a choker. In fact, the only trace of Van Dongen's characteristic garishness appears in the green shadows under this young woman's chin. These tinges not only evoke Van Dongen's harsher, brasher women, they remind us of the expressive palette that is his signature.