Jacques Chalom des Cordes will include this work in his forthcoming Van Dongen catalogue critique being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
Van Dongen’s choice to include La femme à l’aigrette as one of the three paintings he exhibited in the 1911 Salon d’Automne was intended, at least in part, to carry the torch of Fauve color into the new decade. The initial flood tide of Fauvism had rushed in and crested between late 1905 and mid-1907, then subsided in the wake of the revelatory Cézanne memorial exhibition held during the 1907 Salon d’Automne. The emerging cubists were sacrificing their earlier passion for brilliant color in favor of a sober preoccupation with the more novel artifice of analytical form. Van Dongen, however, remained unfazed–he had found his métier, and he “continued imperturbably in his triumphant use of color,” Gaston Diehl wrote, “staying in harmony with his own temperament, without further troubling himself with theories or with fashions in painting” (Van Dongen, New York, 1969, p. 49).
If at this juncture Van Dongen needed in any way to re-galvanize his Fauve impetus, a trip to Spain proved most timely indeed. He had signed in 1909 a contract with Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, which assured him of a minimum income of 6,000 francs annually. He had not yet journeyed beyond the borders of his native Holland and France, but now took advantage of his newfound financial security to go abroad for the first time. In late 1910, Van Dongen traveled first to Spain, and then on to Morocco, before returning to Paris in early 1911.
“His discovery of the light and colour of the Mediterranean was critical,” Emmanuelle Capra has written. “His palette lightened further, enriched with warm orange hues and vivid ochre yellows” (Van Dongen, exh. cat., The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, 2009, p. 7). During the remainder of 1911, Van Dongen painted enough canvases–some, like the present painting, featuring subjects redolent of his recent Spanish adventure–to provide fresh entries to the Salons des Indépendants and d’Automne, and moreover to fully stock not one, but two exhibitions that year at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune.
The first show in June, Van Dongen Hollande–Paris–Espagne–Maroc, comprised 36 paintings; the second, Oeuvres nouvelles, included another 29 works. In his forward to the catalogue of the latter show, Van Dongen touted his colors: “green, which is optimism and heals, blue, which is light and rest, royal yellow, a few colors of oblivion and all the colours of life” (quoted in ibid., p. 7). Both shows were tremendous successes for the painter, enhanced his growing reputation, and were a boon to his dealer as well.
To paint this lovely young woman with a hint of Spanish flavor only required that Van Dongen drape over her shoulders a Manila shawl adorned with a traditional floral pattern. The addition of a head band sporting an egret feather was a de rigueur accessory for female devotees of Parisian night life, presaging flapper headwear during the 1920s. Van Dongen’s model was perhaps a dancer and one in an endless string of girlfriends. Such temptation was irresistible–the artist’s apartment was located across the street from the Folies Bergère.
The brilliant color in La femme à l’aigrette bespeaks the legacy of Fauvism, to which Van Dongen during 1905-1907 had made his own significant contribution, newly invigorated here by dint of his recent jaunt through Spain and Morocco. No less a factor in his exuberant use of color was the strong, head-on, single source electric lighting he had recently installed in his studio, which set ablaze the colors in his models’ flesh tones, their costumes, and the studio backdrops.
Van Dongen’s sensual, often sexy subjects remained the highly infectious source of the color fever that spread from Paris throughout Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia during the pre-war period. He became a member of the German Expressionist Brücke group in 1908, and within a few years his work was shown to acclaim in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Rome, Moscow, Kiev and Riga. Color was his calling card, and became his passport to international fame as well.