Jacques Chalom des Cordes will include this work in his forthcoming Van Dongen catalogue critique being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
"I exteriorize my desires," Van Dongen 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). Van Dongen's lifelong engagement with the erotic developed out of his socially engaged, realist drawing practice of the 1890s--images that focused on the world of brothels and red-light districts in order to illuminate the social questions of poverty and class injustice--and continued into his Fauve-period paintings of the actresses and dancers of the Parisian demi-monde, which traded a naturalist style for audacious manipulation of color and form. By the outbreak of the Great War, Van Dongen had developed an unshakeable reputation as a painter of sexy women, and even in the late teens, when he became the premier portraitist of Parisian high society, his art never lost its erotic frisson and provocative edge. "Van Dongen did not abandon transgression in order to become established and successful," John Klein has explained. "He embraced it and made it consumable, even a source of beau monde desire" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2008, p. 223).
The present painting of three seductively clad women, their gazes bold and unabashed, has been variously dated in the scholarly literature. Louis Chaumeil has identified it as the painting that Van Dongen exhibited as Trois femmes in the Salon d'Automne in 1909, the year after he saw his career take off (op. cit., p. 321). In 1908, Van Dongen had been given two major solo exhibitions, one at the Galerie Kahnweiler in March and a much larger show at 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. Although most of the avant-garde had fallen under the spell of Cézanne by this time, Van Dongen remained steadfast in his commitment to Fauvism. "He continued imperturbably in his triumphant use of color," Gaston Diehl has written, "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).
More recently, the present painting has been dated to the eve of the First World War, a critical turning point in both Van Dongen's life and his art. In March 1912, Van Dongen's now comfortable income enabled him to move into a new, larger studio at 33, rue Denfert-Rochereau near Montparnasse, which had recently supplanted Montmartre as the hub of the avant-garde. Around the same time, he met the Marchesa Luisa Casati, the famously flamboyant Italian heiress and muse of the Parisian elite. La Casati introduced Van Dongen to the upper echelon of Parisian society, who began to clamor for his portraits. In early 1914, he hosted a bal costumé at his studio in which the worlds of art, fashion, high society, and the demi-monde mingled in a legendary last fling before the outbreak of war. His violent Fauve hues were increasingly replaced by refined color harmonies of great finesse, and his figures began to grow more elegant and elongated, anticipating the slender garçonne proportions that would become all the rage after the war. By January 1913, a journalist could confidently remark to Van Dongen, "Now you are what we call here a 'man who has arrived'" (quoted in A. Hopmans, op. cit., p. 99).
If the date of circa 1913 is accurate, Trois femmes would take its place in the annals of modern art beside one of the most notorious paintings of the pre-war years: Le châle espagnol, Van Dongen's monumental nude portrait of his wife Guus, which has the distinction of having been removed for so-called indecency from the 1913 Salon d'Automne (fig. 1). The painting, which is almost exactly the same dimensions as Trois femmes, depicts Guus standing full-length, clad only in stockings and high heels, lifting her shawl to reveal her unabashed frontal nudity. Government ministers deemed the canvas pornographic, and the police ordered it locked away in a cupboard until the end of the Salon after it had hung there for just one day. The scandal was front-page news in all the papers for over two weeks, cementing Van Dongen's celebrity status as the enfant terrible of the Parisian upper crust.
In Trois femmes, Van Dongen gives the viewer not one but three beautiful women to behold. In place of the explicit nudity of Le châle espagnol, the three women are shown in varying states of déshabillé, erotic suggestion supplanting brazen sexuality. Anita Hopmans has proposed that Guus (fig. 2) modeled for the figure in the center, who boasts the same narrow shoulders, nipped-in waist, sensuously rounded hips, and contrapposto stance that we see in Le châle espagnol (ibid., p. 104). In Trois femmes though, Guus wears a clinging, semi-sheer undergarment along with her stockings and heels; the shadow where her thighs meet hints at the "forbidden triangle," as artists were wont to call it, without rendering it explicit. The slender woman to Guus's left, Hopmans has suggested, may be none other than La Casati, who was celebrated for her flame-colored hair and proclivity for translucent garb. Here, she is clad in a dress of the sheerest turquoise silk, which seems to vanish above her waist, leaving her breasts fully exposed. The model on the right is dressed slightly more modestly--though still seductively--in a clinging, slate-colored dress; although unidentified, she nonetheless exudes the unmistakable air of the Parisian milieu.
The depiction of three alluring women in a single canvas evokes the long and esteemed iconographic tradition of the Three Graces, minor goddesses of charm and beauty from Greco-Roman mythology. The triad grouping also harks back to the Homeric tale of the Judgment of Paris, in which Zeus charged the Trojan prince Paris--an apt name, in this instance--with judging a mythical beauty contest among Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Each of the three contestants attempted to sway the competition by bribing Paris with a gift that embodied her special powers, just as the three women in Van Dongen's painting each deliberately flaunt their own particular physical charms. Van Dongen inscribed the stretcher of the painting "MIDI CENTRE NORD," where "Midi" is perhaps a reference to the Italian-born Casati's Mediterranean homeland, "Nord" to Guus's native Rotterdam, and "Centre" to the French capital itself. The remainder of the inscription--FLUCTUAT NEC MERGITUR ("It floats and doesn't sink")--is a Latin phrase that serves as the motto of Paris; it is emblazoned on the city coat of arms, along with an image of a ship tossed by waves on a rough sea.
Trois femmes remained a treasured part of Van Dongen's personal collection for his entire life (figs. 3 and 4). In 1922, he brought the canvas with him when moved with his mistress Jasmy Jacob into a magnificent, two-story house at 5, rue Juliette-Lamber--"a veritable palace, with almost the dimensions of a cathedral," wrote André Warnod, a prominent chronicler of French high society during the inter-war years (quoted in G. Diehl, op. cit., p. 69). By this time, Van Dongen had become the most fashionable portraitist in Paris--"le peintre et roi de son temps," in Louis Chaumeil's words (op. cit., p. 216)--and the well-heeled and famous all clamored to pose for him. He designated the grand salon on the first floor of his new home as a permanent gallery for his work and hung Trois femmes in a place of prominence over the fireplace, where it served as an ongoing inspiration for the elegant, elongated figures of his contemporary society portraits; a photograph from 1923 shows the celebrated French soprano Geneviève Vix posing for a portrait directly beneath Trois femmes (see exh. cat., op. cit., 2008, p. 259, fig. 66).
(fig. 1) Kees van Dongen, Le châle espagnol, 1913. Musée national d'art moderne, Paris.
(fig. 2) Kees van Dongen, Portrait de Guus au fond rouge, 1910. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
(fig. 3) The present painting in Van Dongen's home at 5, rue Juliette-Lamber, circa 1925.
Van Dongen in his studio with the present painting, circa 1959.