A la recherche du temps perdu or In Search of Lost Time constitutes the most prominent work of French novelist Marcel Proust. The seven-volume novel explores the theme of involuntary memory, or déjà vu, which Proust believed to contain the essence of the past. Now among the most influential works of 20th-century literature, In Search of Lost Time is largely autobiographical, and chronicles Proust’s upbringing and life in aristocratic France as told by an unnamed narrator. Tragically, it was left incomplete following Proust’s death from pneumonia in 1922; the final three volumes were posthumously edited and published from his drafts. Gallimard produced a particularly celebrated edition in 1947, commissioning Kees van Dongen to illustrate the tomes with 77watercolors (three of which are included in the Impressionist and Modern Art Works on Paper Sale). Although van Dongen never worked directly with Proust, his art engages with many of the same themes as the writer’s oeuvre, and in particular, this most seminal project.
I felt myself still reliving a past which was no longer anything more than the history of another person”
The present scene presumably illustrates the beach at Balbec, a fictional town located in Normandy. The Grand Hôtel at Balbec features as a prominent locale throughout In Search of Lost Time. Indeed, Proust’s Balbec was inspired by Cabourg, a beach town in Normandy decorated by villas and hotels, where the author stayed for the first time in 1890, and which remained a favorite vacation destination throughout his life. For Proust, the hotel (and town by extension) acted as a transitional place to host figures both familiar and strange, for short and long stays. In Van Dongen’s beach scene, these figures come to life in vibrant colors. In the background, swimmers paddle amongst the waves as children play. At the center, a white-haired dandy strikes up a conversation with a young woman dressed in sunny yellow from head to heels. However, she pays him no attention, as the only figure to address the viewer outside the frame. A portly, ostentatiously-dressed couple promenades beside, the woman turning her head to observe the flirtation. Proust described the coast and its inhabitants through his narrator, alluding to this contrast of young and old: “As though on a seedling whose blossoms ripen at different times, I had seen in old ladies, on that beach at Balbec, the dried-up seeds and sagging tubers that my girl-friends would become. But, now that it was time for buds to blossom, what did that matter?” (quoted in In Search of Lost Time, London, 2003, vol. 2, p. 469).
Van Dongen became one of the most famous painters of Parisian life by the 1920s, and the present work represents a particularly rich example of the artist’s painting style with its thick brushstrokes and vivid coloration. In 1918, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire described the artist’s distinctive use of color and light: “[Van Dongen] has, above all, drawn an acute excitement from electric lighting and has added it to the nuances. The result is an intoxication, a dazzle, a vibrancy, and the colour, holding fast to an extraordinary individuality, swoons, exalts itself, sails, grows dim, faints away, without ever clouding over the clarity of shade” (quoted in G. Diehl, Van Dongen, New York, 1976, p. 85). This painting comes from the collection of Jacqueline and Pierre Simon, who were friends of the artist, and acquired the present work during his lifetime. In 1958, the artist wrote to them from Monaco to confirm the authenticity of their painting and let him know he would be happy to see them in Monaco, if they ever visited France.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).