Kees van Dongen (1877-1968)
Kees van Dongen (1877-1968)

La femme au collier vert

Kees van Dongen (1877-1968)
La femme au collier vert
signed 'van Dongen' (upper left)
oil on canvas
25 5/8 x 18 in. (65.2 x 45.8 cm.)
Painted in 1906-1910
Galerie Kahnweiler, Paris.
Galerie H. Odermatt--Ph. Cazeau, Paris (by 1967).
Madame Raoul Breton, Paris.
Acquired from the estate of the above by the family of the present owner, 1992.
L. Chaumeil, Van Dongen: L'homme et l'artiste--La vie et l'oeuvre, Geneva, 1967, p. 327 (illustrated in color, pl. XVI; titled Le Corsage imprimé; dated 1910; with inverted dimensions).
G. Diehl, Van Dongen, New York, 1969, p. 18 (illustrated in color; dated 1906).
G. Nevejan, Le Portrait féminin dans l'oeuvre de Kees van Dongen, Paris, 1983, p. 233, no. 27 (dated 1906).
J. Juffermans, Kees van Dongen: The Graphic Work, Aldershot, Hampshire, 2003, p. 22 (illustrated; dated 1906).
M. Vallès-Bled, Vlaminck: Catalogue critique des peintures et céramiques de la période fauve, Paris, 2008, p. 230 (illustrated; dated 1906).
Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne and Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Van Dongen, October 1967-January 1968, no. 44 (illustrated; dated 1906).
Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Kees van Dongen, December 1989-February 1990, p. 161, no. 16 (illustrated in color).
Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Van Dongen, Le Peintre, 1877-1968, March-June 1990, p. 258 (illustrated in color, p. 117; dated 1906).

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Brooke Lampley
Brooke Lampley

Lot Essay

Jacques Chalom des Cordes will include this painting in his forthcoming Van Dongen catalogue critique being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.

"I exteriorize my desires," Van Dongen once declared, "by expressing them in pictures. 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" (quoted in M. Giry, Fauvism, Fribourg, 1981, pp. 224 and 226).

Whereas Matisse, Marquet, Friesz, Dufy, and Braque--the more gentlemanly members of the revolutionary Fauve circle--painted port scenes in the dazzling light of the Mediterranean and figures set in a golden Arcadia, Van Dongen took as his subject matter the cheap entertainments of the Parisian underbelly, compellingly human and alive. From 1905, when the Fauves famously took the art world by storm at the Salon d'Automne, until the eve of the First World War, Van Dongen drew his inspiration first and foremost from the singers, dancers, and acrobats whom he encountered on his nightly forays into seedy circuses and cabarets--women like Nini, a performer at the Folies-Bergère, and the dark and sultry Anita la Bohémienne, who worked in a dive on the Place Pigalle, the notorious red-light district of Montmartre. Painted in virulent, acidic colors and bold, opaque strokes, Van Dongen's women confront and provoke the viewer with their strongly physical, almost animalistic presence, their erotically charged lives laid bare in the most visceral way. "Enveloped by a powerful corona...[they] offer themselves shamelessly, exalt the most sensual luxuries, in spite of their bestiality or even vulgarity, which seems to disappear before the seduction of the color harmonies," Gaston Diehl has proclaimed (op. cit., p. 49).

A self-taught artist from a small village on the outskirts of Rotterdam, Van Dongen left home in 1897 at the age of twenty to make his name in Paris, living in utter poverty among hustlers and prostitutes and selling his skillfully mordant illustrations to newspapers and journals. In 1904, he burst onto the Parisian cultural scene with a solo exhibition at Galerie Vollard, which featured both dark, atmospheric paintings in the Dutch tradition and brightly colored scenes of Montmartre in an up-to-the-minute, Neo-Impressionist style. The following year, Van Dongen unleashed his own brand of Fauvism, replacing the meticulous touch of Neo-Impressionism with a volatile mixture of strident color and vigorously painted form. He exhibited alongside Matisse and his colleagues at the now-legendary Salon d'Automne, during which the critic Louis Vauxcelles bestowed upon Les Fauves ("The Wild Beasts") their name, and he cemented his reputation as an adherent of the new movement with a solo exhibition at the Galerie Druet in November 1905. "An orgy of color at the Salon d'Automne, a torrent of color at Galerie Druet: Van Dongen is incontestably a Fauve from the beginning," Emmanuelle Capra has written (Van Dongen, exh. cat., Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2009, p. 5).

The clamor and agitation of Fauvism soon passed in the wake of the revelatory Cézanne retrospective mounted at the Salon d'Automne in 1907. Most avant-garde painters quickly fell under the spell of the newly deified master of Aix, whose example encouraged them to adopt an increasingly volumetric, constructive approach to form and to forsake the pure, unfettered tones of Fauvism for a more somber palette of mixed tones. Van Dongen, however, was unmoved. He had already found his métier, and he "continued imperturbably in his triumphant use of color, staying in harmony with his own temperament, without further troubling himself with theories or with fashions in painting" (G. Diehl, op. cit., 1968, p. 49). Around the same time, Van Dongen saw his career take off. In 1908, he was given two major solo exhibitions, one at the Galerie Kahnweiler in March and a much larger show at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in November. The latter was a resounding critical and commercial success, with seventeen paintings sold in the first two days alone, leading Bernheim-Jeune to take the artist under contract. Van Dongen also began to exhibit widely outside of Paris in 1908, and by the end of the decade, he enjoyed a comfortable income and had become famous across Europe as an irrepressible artiste provocateur.

La femme au collier vert has been variously dated in the literature: either to 1906, at the very height of the Fauve moment, or to 1910, by which time Van Dongen had confidently consolidated his seductive brand of Fauvism and attained international acclaim. With her full lips, pale oval face, and modishly bobbed, jet-black hair, the young woman in the painting bears a striking resemblance to the dancer Nini, who was Van Dongen's mistress for a time and inspired some of his most arrestingly sensual paintings (compare Chaumeil, nos. 55-56 and 59; also fig. 1). Louis Chaumeil, drawing on the artist's much later reminiscences, has placed Van Dongen's initial encounter with Nini in the winter of 1905-1906, at the time of his move to the Bateau-Lavoir (op. cit., p. 101), while more recent research indicates that the artist may not have taken up with the free-spirited beauty until 1909 (see exh. cat., op. cit., 2009, p. 6). Perhaps reflecting the prevailing influence of Cézanne in the latter years of the decade, the figure in the present painting has a somewhat greater sense of volume and solidity than we tend to see in Van Dongen's work from 1906, making her all the more formidable as a living, breathing body. The aggressively bright palette, however, is resolutely Fauve, with none of the more restricted color harmonies that Van Dongen occasionally introduced into his work as Cubism took hold of the avant-garde.

Whereas Van Dongen's paintings of Nini and her fellow demi-mondaines often titillate the viewer with a bare breast or exposed thigh, La femme au collier vert instead depicts the figure fully clothed in a boldly patterned, vaguely exotic blouse or peignoir. The painting's powerful erotic charge comes principally from the model's penetrating, kohl-rimmed gaze, which lends her a directly confrontational presence and draws us inexorably into her world of virulent, acidic color. Her lips are described by slashes of brilliant crimson, suggesting roughly applied stage make-up, while her green-tinged flesh, encircled at the collarbone by a necklace of dark green beads, stands out in sharp counterpoint against the incendiary, voluptuous red of the flat ground, the color of blood and ardor (compare fig. 2). Rejecting the cerebral and stylized art of Gauguin, which Matisse and others took as their precedent during their Fauve years, Van Dongen has embraced the unnaturally saturated color and blunt emotional intensity of his fellow Dutchman Van Gogh, producing images that surpass in voltage even his friend Picasso's explosive dance-hall scenes from the opening years of the century (e.g. fig. 3).

Indeed, the popular entertainments of Montmartre not only provided Van Dongen with the bulk of his subject matter during these years, but also informed the very pictorial language of his work. The brute materiality of the painted surface and its deliberate refusal of technical refinement serve as a supremely appropriate expressive vehicle for the coarse and aggressively sensual demi-monde denizens whom the young artist chose to depict. Even Van Dongen's avant-garde colleagues were shocked: "I think it's silly to insist on singing your song for the sake of it without making sure the music is right," Derain protested (quoted in ibid., p. 106). While Van Dongen shared with the other Fauves the desire to call attention to the physical act of painting by making every gesture of the brush visible to the eye, he was alone in consistently translating this immediacy of image and nakedness of means into a visual analogue for physically provocative subject matter. John Elderfield has written, "His carnal and expressionist obsessions made him perhaps the wildest of the Fauves, but because of this an atypical one" (The "Wild Beasts": Fauvism and Its Affinities, New York, 1976, pp. 67-68).

The distance that separates Van Dongen from his Fauve partners is evident in the comparison of the present painting with Matisse's iconic portrait of his wife, La raie verte, which scandalized contemporary critics with its radical use of color when it was exhibited at the Salon d'Automne in 1905 (fig. 4). In La raie verte, the green that falls across Madame Matisse's face and neck reads principally as the decomposition of light into its constituent coloristic elements; in Van Dongen's painting, by contrast, the pools of phosphorescent green describe the effect of harsh electric light, as well as hinting at a sort of literal decomposition, a wasting of the body caused by too many late nights. "Van Dongen has stuff which will make Matisse look pompous before long," the up-and-coming critic Jacques Rivière wrote about a group show at the Galerie Berthe Weill in 1907 (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2009, p. 108). John Klein has concluded:

"Van Dongen not only made important contributions to the formal audacity of Fauvism, and did so with portraiture at the heart of his enterprise, he also came to self-consciously manipulate Fauve style and subject matter in a thorough embrace of the vulgar, the sexually transgressive, and the exotic... Quite at odds with the earnest self-expression of the French artists associated with Fauvism, the outsider Van Dongen, wielding the trademarks of Fauve style more as tools for constructing identity and managing effect than as expressive ends in themselves, anticipates later, postmodern tendencies to irony and self-invention, ensuring the relevance and continuing fascination of his work today" ("Van Dongen, Postmodern Fauve," in ibid., pp. 221 and 224).

(fig. 1) Kees van Dongen, Nini la Parisienne, circa 1909. Private collection. BARCODE: 28854807

(fig. 2) Kees van Dongen, Portrait de Guus au fond rouge, 1910. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. BARCODE: 28854791

(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Pierreuse, la main sur l'épaule, 1901. Museu Picasso, Barcelona. BARCODE: 28854784

(fig. 4) Henri Matisse, La raie verte, 1905. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. BARCODE: 28854777

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