Painted circa 1926, L'actrice Lili Damita dates from the frenzied height of the career of the Dutch-born artist Kees van Dongen. This painting, filled with the glamour and decadence that drips so intoxicatingly from his canvases, shows the celebrated French actress Lili (or Lily) Damita around the moment that she made the trans-atlantic leap to Hollywood, where she became one of the icons of her age and married, in part helping to launch the career of, the celebrated actor Errol Flynn, still renowned for his epic swashbuckling portrayal of Robin Hood. Van Dongen was taken with Damita's sensuality, and has channelled it in the manner for which he was so celebrated at this time, creating an image that is at once stylish and lavish. Lili sits, smiling, her features perfectly captured with an economy of means that harks back to van Dongen's Fauve period, with the golden hair and red lips and cheeks contrasting vividly with her porcelain skin. Meanwhile, the lilies, a knowing pun on the actresses name, and the white furs have been rendered with a swirling mass of brushstrokes that add to the vigour of the overall portrait. The pool of light that absorbs Lili as she sits draped in luxurious furs and underwear, provocatively beckoning to the viewer, are made all the more striking by the contrast with the more subdued background, adding a vibrancy to the composition. This picture, with its sensual, sweeping brushstrokes and vivid contrasts, perfectly encapsulates van Dongen's own statement, 'I love anything that glitters, precious stones that sparkle, fabrics that shimmer, beautiful women who arouse carnal desire... painting lets me possess all this most fully' (Van Dongen, quoted in M. Giry, Fauvism, Fribourg, 1981, pp. 224-6).
Van Dongen had been known as a painter primarily of women for some time, not least in the Fauve period when he had begun to gain increasing fame within the artistic demi monde. It was during the 1910s and 1920s that his star rose and rose, as he came into contact with higher and more glamorous echelons of society. This was reflected in his portraits of the aristocracy and the wealthy bourgeoisie, especially in the form of the women in those circles, for instance Madame Rualet, whose portrait by van Dongen showing her draped on a chair, is filled with the heady sensuality of the age. Increasingly, van Dongen had also come to know important actresses and to include them in his pantheon of female beauty, for instance Paulette Pax, whose elegant portrait is now in the collection of the Musée national d'Art moderne, Paris from the late 1920s, or Maria Ricotti, whose own slightly earlier likeness is in the collection of the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. He was increasingly exposed to the glittering and glamorous world of the modern international aristocracy alongside figures of contemporary royalty and the nobility, including protagonists of the entertainment and couture spheres, as well as wealthy industrialists.
Accordingly, van Dongen's own home became one of the hot spots of the age, and his vernissages were events not to be missed. This is clear from a description of one of the openings he held at his home in Paris, published in Écouter around the time that L'actrice Lili Damita was painted:
'At midnight five hundred people filled every floor of van Dongen's townhouse in peaceful rue Juliette Lamber. Women in furs and pearls, men in tails and tuxedos, Montparnassians in jackets with their girlfriends in clinging sweaters... Van Dongen himself, in a jacket, pipe between his teeth, maintained an altogether Dutch calm, and without reacting in the slightest, was greatly occupied with allowing himself to be looked at by so many Levantines, Bulgarians, Americans, Brazilians, Czechoslovakians - nocturnal butterflies attracted from the four corners of the world by this blazing fire' (quoted in N. Bondil & J.M. Bouhours (eds.), Van Dongen, Montreal & Monaco, 2008, p. 260).
During that period, Lili Damita still very much formed part of that world in Paris, having featured in several silent movies before making a significant breakthrough in 1925 in the Austrian film Das Spielzeug von Paris, directed by Michael Kertesz (or Curtiz), to whom she was briefly married. She made several movies in Germany, before returning to Paris and appearing in a revue. It was probably then that she came into contact with van Dongen: a signed photograph remained in one of the family's photograph albums from the time. L'actrice Lili Damita thus appears to date from this time, as may a possible second portrait of Lili (sometimes identified as Monna Lils, in the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virgina).
It was while she was starring in this revue that Lili was seen and pursued by the legendary Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn, then on a talent-seeking tour of Europe (see D. Bret, Errol Flynn: Gentleman Hellraiser, London, 2009, p. 38). Within a short time, Lili had become one of the key personalities in Hollywood, playing opposite Gary Cooper and Cary Grant and garnering great acclaim for her lead in The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1929.
In the mid-1930s, she met the then almost unheard-of Flynn, first on the ship in which he was travelling from Asia to America, when she showed little interest in him when he asked her to dance at a ball: 'I slunk back to my table,' he would later recall. 'It was the longest few yards I ever had to make' (E. Flynn, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, London, 2002, p. 187). Some time later, he saw her again and she was more welcoming: 'The hello she called went far into my life' (ibid., p. 191). She invited him back to her place, beginning a tempestuous affair that would help Flynn's career as it exposed him to some of the great players of the age. Soon afterwards, they married in Mexico, where they both met Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Lili had a son with Flynn, the famous photographer Sean Flynn, who tragically disappeared during the Vietnam War, while he was on assignment for Time-Life. L'actrice Lili Damita, then, is a painting that dates from a key moment in the fortunes and lives of several characters from the twentieth century.