Jacques Chalom des Cordes will include this work in his forthcoming Kees van Dongen catalogue raisonné being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
'Paris beckoned me like a beacon', Kees van Dongen declared when explaining why, in the closing years of the nineteenth century, he had moved from his native Holland to the French capital (Van Dongen, quoted in A. Hopmans, All Eyes on Kees van Dongen, exh., cat., Rotterdam, 2010, p. 15). The City of Light was then the undisputed centre of artistic innovation but even here Van Dongen's talent shone through and he quickly made a name for himself within its avant-garde circles, striking up contact with artists such as Henri Matisse and Maurice de Vlaminck and with leading dealers like Ambroise Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and the Bernheim-Jeunes. Immersing himself in the Bohemian environment of Montmartre--where he took a studio in the Bateau-Lavoir alongside Pablo Picasso--Van Dongen produced drawings and paintings which portrayed the area's many colourful, often declassé characters.
1911, the year Lola was painted, was remarkably successful for Van Dongen. As well as showing at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d'Automne, two critically acclaimed solo exhibitions of his work were held at the prestigious Bernheim-Jeune Gallery. There, critics praised his sensually painted female nudes and his portraits that depicted sitters from the Parisian beau- and demimondes alike, as well as the women he had encountered on his recent trip to Spain and Morocco. The sitter of the present painting has been traditionally known as Lola and, as in many of Van Dongen's enigmatic portraits which are often paintings of types rather than likenesses per se, one wonders about her identity and from which stratum of society she was drawn. Like one his favourite models of the time, Nini, she may have been a cabaret performer from the Folies Bergères located just a stone's-throw away from the studio on the rue Lamarck that he had moved to in 1909. Her remarkably simple clothing and inquisitive rather than alluring gaze would seem, however, to counter such an interpretation. The Spanish name might suggest that, like his Portrait d'Ana (1911; Ludwig Museum), he may have encountered her on his trip abroad. Where Ana is depicted in traditional 'exotic' dress, however, Lola is presented in plain, almost masculine clothing, inviting a degree of parallel with his androgynous La garconne (circa 1912; private collection).
By stripping the work of all extraneous details and placing his model against a neutral backdrop that has been vigorously rendered in shades of grey, Van Dongen forces us to focus upon the essentials of the composition, in particular, the remarkably large, glassy eyes. These are set in a thin, seemingly pale face which is tinged with flashes and streaks of green, yellow and red. This is an atmospherically dark-toned painting but it is combined with judicious and sophisticated use of the more explosive palette that in 1905 had earned him the sobriquet of 'Fauve' along with Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck and others. The overall effect is simplicity, almost starkness, and perhaps a certain fragility and vulnerability in the presentation of the enigmatic Lola.