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Kees van Dongen (1877-1968)
Kees van Dongen (1877-1968)
Kees van Dongen (1877-1968)
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Property from the Estate of Mrs. Henry Ford II
Kees van Dongen (1877-1968)

Grand nu (Zita)

Kees van Dongen (1877-1968)
Grand nu (Zita)
signed 'van Dongen.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
51 ¼ x 38 ¼ in. (130 x 97.2 cm.)
Painted in 1911.
Dr. Alexandre Roudinesco, Paris (acquired from the artist); sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York, 10 October 1968, lot 15.
Mr. Henry Ford II, Detroit, Palm Beach and London (acquired at the above sale), and by descent.
P. Descargues, "Racontez, docteur Roudinesco" in Connaissance des arts, February 1969, no. 204, p. 72 (illustrated in color, p. 73).
Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Van Dongen, Oeuvres de 1890 à 1948, March 1949, no. 43 (dated 1908).
Post Lot Text
This work will be included in the forthcoming Kees Van Dongen Digital Catalogue Raisonné, currently being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc.

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

When Kees van Dongen first arrived in Paris, he was immediately struck by the vitality and modernity of the French capital. The artist later explained that the city had attracted him “like a lighthouse,” pulling him in to the hedonistic world of cabarets and nightclubs that filled Montmartre and the Pigalle (quoted in A. Hopmans, The Van Dongen Nobody Knows: Early and Fauvist Drawings 1895-1912, exh. cat, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1997, p. 26). Women soon became his primary subject matter, their elegant, sensuous forms absorbing him endlessly, as he sought to capture a sense of their sexual power and magnetic appeal. Often drawing his models from the world of dancers, performers and cabaret artists that spent their nights dazzling crowds in the clubs and theatres that surrounded his studio, Van Dongen developed a fascination for the intense eroticism of the female body, explaining: “I exteriorize my desires by expressing them in pictures… I love anything that glitters, precious stones that sparkle, beautiful women who arouse carnal desire… Painting lets me possess all this most fully” (quoted in J. Freeman, Fauves, exh. cat., The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995, p. 118).
In his 1911 composition Grand nu (Zita), Van Dongen celebrates the seductive beauty of the female form on a monumental, almost life-size scale, focusing on the tall, elegant body of the mysterious “Zita.” This compositional style, in which the figure is set against an empty but vibrantly-hued space and occupies almost the entirety of the large-format canvas, was very typical of the artist’s work from this period, and used to spectacular effect in paintings such as Guus sur fond rouge (1911; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). Wearing nothing but a pair of elegantly draped necklaces and a rich indigo-hued cloak, Zita stares confidently out from the canvas, completely at ease with the state of provocative undress in which we find her, confronting and luring the viewer into her space. The power of her gaze is emphasized by the exaggerated size of her wide, almond-shaped eyes, framed by long lashes and enhanced by the presence of kohl, while a bold dash of scarlet lipstick brings her mouth to life. Her cloud of thick dark hair, meanwhile, almost disappears into the surrounding shadows, the headdress or lace mantilla encircling her crown remaining just visible to the viewer in its undulating contours and hints of decoration, harking back to the traditional costumes the artist had encountered during his trip through Spain, Tunis and Morocco in 1910.
While many of his contemporaries thrilled in capturing the ephemeral effects of nature and the fleeting play of sunlight, Van Dongen deliberately set out to paint his figures in the intense glare of artificial, electric lights. The artist had embraced this aspect of modernity almost as soon as he arrived in Paris, using it prominently in his compositions of theatres and dancing crowds in the nightclubs of Montmartre, and in 1908 he installed several electric lamps in his studio, using the electric wiring of the nearby Folies-Bergère to power his lights. Fernande Olivier, who modelled for Van Dongen during this period, recalled the “blinding” light that they emitted, which made the artist’s colors shine. In Grand nu (Zita), the use of electric illumination is evident in the sharp contrasts between passages of light and soft shadow that mark the woman’s form, her left hand side aglow with a luminous, white tone that runs from her collarbone through her torso and into her thigh, highlighting the sensual curves of her body.
The modern electric light brought a new intensity to Van Dongen’s colors, introducing skins of vibrant green, shadows of variegated lilac, and contours of scarlet red, which appeared to radiate from the canvas. It was this aspect of his work that Marius-Ary Leblond drew attention to in the preface of the catalogue produced for the artist’s exhibition at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1908: “[Van Dongen] breaks down the harmonies of the rosy skin, in which he discovers acid greens, blood orange reds, phosphorous yellows, vinous lilac, electric blues… instead of juxtaposing these shades in narrow strokes, he spreads them out in isolation, each over large areas…” (quoted T. Schoon, J. van Adrichem and H. de Man, eds., Kees van Dongen, exh. cat., Museum Boymans-van Beuningen Rotterdam, 1989, p. 153). In the present work, the model’s skin is captured in a dazzling array of subtly shifting green tones, from soft, delicate minty hues to strokes of vibrant emerald used to define her contours. The rich crimson background, meanwhile, remains in deep shadow, small pockets of light punctuating its expanse to create a dynamic, variegated surface. Executed in layers of visceral, saturated strokes of pigment, Van Dongen draws attention to the very act of the painting’s creation, making every gesture of the brush, each successive layering of paint, visible on the surface of the canvas.
Like his contemporary, Amedeo Modigliani, Van Dongen frequently courted controversy with the flagrant eroticism of such paintings as Grand nu (Zita), with the police called on more than one occasion to remove his canvases from Parisian exhibitions on the grounds of obscenity. Indeed, in his review of the 1913 Salon d’Automne, Guillaume Apollinaire remarked that Van Dongen appeared to be making a biannual habit of exhibiting work only to have it swiftly removed from view for the good of the public. The distinctive eroticism of enchanting sirens such as Zita, and their often sexually charged content, proved quite shocking to contemporary audiences, and brought the artist a degree of notoriety within the Parisian art world. Grand nu (Zita) was purchased directly from the artist by Dr. Alexandre Roudinesco, a Paris-based physician who assembled a major collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings between the wars, and enjoyed close friendships with many of the leading artists of the day, including Maurice de Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy, Paul Signac, Van Dongen and Georges Rouault.

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