Jacques Chalom des Cordes will include this painting in his forthcoming van Dongen catalogue critique being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
"I passionately love the life of my time; it's so animated, so feverish," Van Dongen declared to his friend Edouard des Courières in the early 1920s, as les années folles were well underway (quoted in E. des Courières, Van Dongen, Paris, 1925, p. 20). Van Dongen pursued his love of modern life in the cabarets, restaurants and salons of Paris, and in the seaside resorts where his upper-class clientele took their holidays. He sought the patronage of the aristocracy and the nouveau riche, was a favorite guest at their parties, and hosted his own extravagant soirées. His social affinities afforded him an excellent vantage point from which he could observe and chronicle contemporary glamour, fashion and mores. Des Courières wrote: "Van Dongen is certainly a history painter in the best sense of the term... In his own way he is a moralist, who smilingly reveals without insisting--there is no need--on all the absurdities of his contemporaries" (ibid., p. 40). No other modern painter so thoroughly and definitively chronicled this era--Louis Chaumeil called Van Dongen "le roi et peintre de son temps" (in Van Dongen, Geneva, 1967, p. 216).
Van Dongen was the premier portraitist of his day. Men from the world of letters, finance, commerce and medicine lined up to have him paint them and their wives. To create a grander environment for this burgeoning enterprise, Van Dongen moved in 1922 from the Villa Said into an even larger, more elegant two-story building that had once been a hotel, at 5, rue Juliette-Lamber, near the place Wagram. He acquired this new residence in the name of his mistress, Jasmy Jacob. It was "a veritable palace, with almost the dimensions of a cathedral," André Warnod later described it (quoted in G. Diehl, Van Dongen, New York, 1969, p. 69). In addition to the soirées Van Dongen held every Monday, the building was given over to periodic private exhibitions of his paintings. Van Dongen turned the idea of the traditional salon vernissage, the pre-opening varnishing of the paintings, into a large preview party. Paul Gsell wrote, "There is nothing more worldly, more Parisian, more dernier cri, than this ceremony of inauguration. From top to bottom of the house, in all the ample rooms, the portraits are lined up on the walls. They live there. As for the subjects who come and go to look at their portraits, they are in reality nothing but copies made from these images of themselves" (quoted in ibid.).
Thé dans mon atelier is remarkable for its solid blue background, against which each figure appears in its own spotlight. Van Dongen had painted compositions in this way as far back as 1914. The arrangement of figures may appear casual, but it is not random--the artist has rendered these individuals in proper scale to each other, and their placement conforms to an invisible perspectival system within the room. The solid red screen towards the top of the picture, which serves as the entrance to the room, may suggest that Van Dongen was alluding to the radical spatial concept in Matisse's famous L'atelier rouge, 1911 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York). Van Dongen's guests may have actually experienced this overall single color effect at his parties. Michel George-Michel has recounted, "it was a strange spectacle. All those whose portraits were hung on the walls seemed to have descended from their frames to dance among the pictures. And the effect was all the more fantastic in that the painter had drowned the room in an aquarium light" (quoted in ibid.).