Jacques Chalom des Cordes will include this painting in his forthcoming Van Dongen catalogue critique being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
A set of beguiling almond-shaped eyes dramatically outlined with kohl gaze out from Kees van Dongen's alluring Portrait de femme. Though encircled by a brilliant orange background and an elaborate headdress, it is the sitter's eyes which captivate the viewer's attention. Even the artist's large, vivid signature emblazoned across the center left does not draw our attention away for long. In this unique work, Van Dongen revisits the bold palette and expressive brushstroke of his earlier Fauve style.
At the height of his Fauve period from 1905-1907, Van Dongen applied paint with Neo-Impressionist dabs and achieved flatness through pure color. He rejected conventional shading, preferring strident chromatic contrasts. During this time, Van Dongen perfected his singular style of feminine portraiture, marked by disproportionately large eyes, elongated eyebrows and necklaces, as seen in both Portrait de femme and his Femme au chapeau fleuri (fig. 1) from 1905. The same year, fellow Fauve Vlaminck emulated Van Dongen's trademark style in Portrait of a Woman, 1905 (fig. 2). Later in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, Van Dongen often adopted more somber tones in his portraits, as seen in La Parisienne de Montmartre, 1911 (fig. 3). Though clearly aligned with the Fauve movement, Van Dongen's works, like Portrait de femme, also have an affinity to German Expressionism. In 1908, Max Pechstein invited the artist to exhibit with the Dresden-based group, Die Brücke, whose members particularly appreciated his commitment to the figure.
The modern woman was Van Dongen's chief subject throughout his career and he was as radical and influential in depicting her as his contemporaries Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani. During his time at The Academy of Fine Arts in Rotterdam from 1892-1897, he frequented the docks to sketch scenes of sailors and prostitutes. When he moved to Paris in 1899, he continued to depict prostitutes, as well as the cabaret girls of Montmartre, much as Daumier and Toulouse-Lautrec had before him. Van Dongen quickly fell in with the city's most prominent members of the avant-garde. In 1906, he rented the studio across from his friend Picasso at Le Bateau-Lavoir--the nickname given to Montmartre's famous studio building and meeting place for artists, writers and poets. After several successful exhibitions afforded him the means to move to a larger, more elegant studio, he became famous for his parties and dress balls. Following World War I, Van Dongen gravitated to the beau monde in Paris, becoming the city's most fashionable portraitist in the 1920s and 1930s. He was well liked by his patrons and fellow artists alike. As the poet André Salmon observed, "van Dongen--good old Kees--was considered as the best and warmest fellow, shorn of what is expected of a friend" (A. Salmon, Souvenirs san fins. Troisiéme époche. 1920-1940, Paris, 1961, quoted in M. Vallès-Bled, Van Dongen: du Nord et du Sud, exh. cat., Musée de Lodève, 2004, p. 32).
The woman in Portrait de femme, possibly a re-creation of a Montmartre showgirl from his early days in Paris or one of Monaco's contemporary movie stars, stares, as if transfixed, over and beyond the viewer's shoulder. A greenish glow, perhaps emanating from stage lighting or the flash of paparazzi cameras suffuses her skin. Though the sitter's gaze is intense, the rest of the painting is vibrant and festive, underscored by the large and playful artist's signature. The prominent yellows and oranges and striking line modeled with color of Portrait de femme recall Van Dongen's early masterpiece Modjesko, Soprano Singer, 1908 (fig. 4). Both paintings exude the vivaciousness and charisma of performers which van Dongen captured throughout his career, often mirroring his own bravura performance of brushstroke and color.
Whether painting prostitutes, café singers or movie stars, Van Dongen infused all of his women with vitality and sensuality. The reviewer Galanti observed in 1914: "van Dongen's art irresistibly draws us in, because it is filled with passion and ardent sensuality. The voluptuous appeal of some of these girlish faces is completely thrilling... whether he paints society women or prostitutes, errand girls or actresses, dancers or oriental women, his constant and only concern is to capture on canvas, with extraordinarily rich colours, the form, appearance, and soul of today's woman" (M. B. Galanti, "Kees van Dongen," Montparnasse, 20 June 1914, quoted in A. Bertrand. "'Un Temps Fou': An Investigation of the Artist's Studio as Workplace and Playground," in N. Bondil and J.M. Bouhours, eds., van Dongen, exh. cat., Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2008, p. 254).
(fig. 1) Kees van Dongen, Femme au chapeau fleuri, 1905. Sold, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2010, lot 58.
(fig. 2) Maurice de Vlaminck, Portrait de jeune femme, 1905. Sold, Christie's, London, 20 June 2006, lot 125.
(fig. 3) Kees van Dongen, La Parisienne de Montmartre, 1911. Musée Malraux, Le Harve.
(fig. 4) Kees van Dongen, Modjesko, Soprano Singer, 1908. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.