This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue critique of Kees van Dongen being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
Van Dongen painted this fauve portrait of a young woman in a large flowered hat during the astonishing turning point in his early career. Within a period of only four years, this unknown and ambitious young painter, then in his late twenties, showed his work in Vollard's gallery (1904) and was installed alongside Matisse (fig. 1), Derain and Vlaminck in the notorious salle VII of the 1905 Salon d'Automne--which the critic Louis Vauxcelles dubbed "la cage aux fauves." He became a regular presence in the annual salons of progressive and independent art, and in 1908 he was given not one, but two successful, reputation-making exhibitions, first at Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler's new gallery and then at the older and prestigious Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. By the end of 1908 Van Dongen had decisively overcome the daunting odds that faced the vast legion of struggling artists in Paris, and could proudly proclaim his arrival as a painter to be reckoned with.
A self-taught artist, Van Dongen drew on various sources in an entirely intuitive manner. 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 arrived independently at his own hothouse brand of Fauvism through his passion for subjects taken from modern life, with an emphatic preference for the lowly and libertine demi-monde. One cannot say which startled, titillated and provoked the viewing public more--Van Dongen's choice of people and situations in his pictures or the radical painterly means by which he presented them.
Femme au chapeau fleuri shows all the pictorial hallmarks of Van Dongen's most directly expressive Fauve manner. The model may have been his wife Guus or perhaps Fernande Olivier, Picasso's companion--during 1906-1907 both Picasso and Van Dongen had studios in the Bateau-Lavoir at 13, rue Ravignan, Montmartre. Van Dongen has cropped this composition so closely so that his subject is no more than an alluring, heavily made-up vampish face, crowned with a fashionably big hat and its huge pink lunar flower. The young woman's huge eyes are the riveting focal point of the composition, even if she gazes slightly askance of the viewer. Van Dongen's handling of paint is unstinting in its application, varied in touch--his method was completely free and spontaneous. Here he has employed both brush and palette knife. 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).
Van Dongen applied his colors--multiple hues of blue and red with green--straight from tube to picture, mixing them right on the board, adding generous smears of lead white to form the face and to heighten the brilliance and texture of the large flower. The opposition in the face of white and pink flesh with green shadow became a trademark Fauve color effect. Van Dongen had little interest in color theory, he simply let reality speak for itself. He stated in a 1958 interview: "It really wasn't out of love of strident colour that I clashed reds and greens. I didn't have enough money to pay for professional models, so I went to cafés, where girls agreed to pose for a few hours for a cup of coffee. And these nice kids wore their garish makeup like the sign of their trade. That's how a reputation is born and how one becomes a Fauve" (quoted in ibid., p. 37).
Kahnweiler's gallery inventory label with the number 118 appears on the reverse of Femme au chapeau fleuri. The novice art dealer opened his gallery at 28, rue Vignon in February 1907 and met Picasso that summer. Van Dongen, probably at Picasso's suggestion, paid a visit to the dealer at his gallery soon afterwards. Kahnweiler purchased a few of the paintings that Van Dongen had brought along, and later visited the painter's studio. Late in 1907 Kahnweiler made a verbal agreement with Van Dongen to buy up more pictures and show them in his gallery. Van Dongen had been preparing for an exhibition at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, which had been already postponed several times. Kahnweiler decided to put on his own Van Dongen show before Bernheim-Jeune did theirs, and commissioned a portrait from the artist (fig. 2). On 19 February 1908 the painter wrote to a friend: "The things, the violent things which Messrs. B are so afraid of... will be on view from first to the end of March at Mr. Henry Kahnweiler's, 28, rue Vignon" (quoted in ibid., p. 108).
Kahnweiler showed thirty of Van Dongen's Fauve works in his small gallery, possibly including the present painting, and met with some success, in effect setting the stage for the larger exhibition of more than seventy works that Bernheim-Jeune finally opened in November 1908. The gallery sold seventeen pictures in the first two days alone. Kahnweiler's interest in new painting began to shift toward the experimental early cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque; he nevertheless continued to purchase works from Van Dongen, as many as seventy in all, through 1910, and he arranged for Van Dongen's participation in important exhibitions in Germany and Russia, spreading the artist's growing reputation abroad.
With the increased income that Van Dongen had taken in from his recent exhibitions, he and his family moved to an apartment at 6, rue Saulnier, opposite the Folies-Bergère. Considering the excellent results of the artist's recent show, Bernheim-Jeune in late 1909 signed a seven-year contract with Van Dongen, guaranteeing the artist a minimum income of 6,000 francs per year. They went on to buy forty paintings during 1910, enabling Van Dongen to take his first traveling holiday outside Holland and France--a trip to Spain and Morocco during the winter of 1910-1911. Van Dongen late in life recalled that when he was living at the Bateau-Lavoir, he and his painter friends would steal deliveries of bread and milk from local apartment buildings to feed themselves and their families. Those trying, lean times were now finally and forever behind him.
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, La Femme au chapeau, Paris, autumn 1905. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Barcode: 2800 1546
(fig. 2) Kees van Dongen, Portrait de Kahnweiler, circa 1908. Petit Palais, Musée d'Art Moderne, Geneva.
Barcode: 2800 1553