Jacques-Chalom des Cordes will include this painting in his forthcoming Van Dongen catalogue raisonné under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
In the years 1904-1907 Van Dongen, a Dutchman who hailed from Rotterdam, lived at the Bateau Lavoir in Montmartre, among a group of struggling young painters that included Picasso, Braque, Derain and Gris. Fascinated by the seductive, demi-mondaine nightlife of Montmartre, Van Dongen sought his subjects among the prostitutes who walked its streets, the shopkeepers of the place du Tertre, and the Bohemian pleasure-seekers who thronged to the Moulin a la Galette and other dancehalls.
Van Dongen first exhibited in Paris in 1904, when he showed six paintings at the Salon des Indépendants. The following year he achieved the fame and notoriety that he had been seeking when he participated in the Salon d' Automne in the company of Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck and others, a group that achieved a resounding, overnight succès de scandale, having been dubbed les fauves ("wild beasts") for their use of vigorous, patchy brushwork and clashing contrasts of pure color.
Van Dongen painted Femme fatale around this time. This painting demonstrates in uncompromising fashion the artist's penchant for exploiting shock value, here taken to an unprecedented extreme. He has fused blatant eroticism with his recent discovery of jarring and electrifying color to create a portrait of startling and unforgettable psychological intensity. Donald Kuspit has noted that "his most important pictures are those of women, more or less nude, painted between ca. 1904-10. The female then continues throughout his life, but it is never again as intense and fraught with psychodynamic complexity as in the works of those years" (in "Kees van Dongen: Unequivocal Colour and Equivocal Sexuality," Kees van Dongen, exh. cat., Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1990, pp. 37 and 39).
Van Dongen employed jewel-like colors in the present portrait to emphasize the flamboyant and tawdry character of his sitter. He molded her flesh in rich emerald greens, and rendered her low-cut dress and plumed hat in various complementary shades of red, vermilion and fuchsia. Her curly hair and copiously applied eye shadow are a striking cerulean blue; and the purest whites and golden yellow create the illusion that her ostentatious faux jewelry virtually shines on the canvas. What pleasure the painting of this picture must have brought Van Dongen, for as he once proclaimed, "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. 224-226).
Van Dongen's Femme fatale is so blatant in her exhibitionism that she becomes a caricature of seductiveness. Yet she is unquestionably a powerful and irresistible magnet. Her confrontational but aloofly dismissive stare, unabashed display of grandiosity and overt sexuality suggest an attitude of empowerment and self-assurance, which she projects with absolute indifference to the moral judgment of others. She displays neither shame about her occupation nor self-consciousness about her déclassé status. Donald Kuspit has attested that "Van Dongen sets up a contradiction between the autonomous person and an instrument of pleasure - the paradox of the prostitute whom one can use but not possess. She is physically available but sharply separate psychically. She uses you as much as you use her and in the end has more power over you than you have over her, for you more desire for her than she has for you. Van Dongen's females are strong, very particular characters" (op. cit., p. 39).
Her detached and casually matter-of-fact stare recalls Manet's Olympia of 1863 (fig. 1), which caused outrage and disgust when it was first exhibited in the 1865 Salon, having upended the conventional artistic imperative that a female nude should be depicted in an idealized and passive manner. Manet was reviled for daring to openly depict the undisguised moral character of his subject. Rather than using an allegorical or mythological title for his nude, he calls her by her first name - Olympia, a popular name for prostitutes at that time - and allows her to lay shamelessly exposed to her viewers' stares, as she stares back at them.
Van Dongen's Femme fatale also alludes to a more surprising and ironical source, the most potent and symbolically charged female icon in Western art - the Virgin Mary -thus invoking the fin de siècle obsession with the image of woman as Madonna and Whore. Compare the image of the Virgo lactans, as depicted in the anonymous Master of Flémalle's Virgin and Child before a Fire-screen (fig. 2). The Virgin is depicted frontally, lovingly offering her milk-swollen breast to the Infant Savior, signifying the nurturing, nourishing and compassionate love of the mother church for its believers. Van Dongen completely subverts this image and the long tradition that it represents, and has his whore cup her exposed breast to advertise her sexual availability. She offers the promise of carnal nourishment, but without tenderness or love, to the desirous male viewer.
Although Van Dongen often depicted highly-charged erotic imagery in his paintings, he rarely failed to express compassion and indeed admiration for his female subjects. He stated, "I know every one of those women's histories, which are deeply tragic. They have experienced life in all its facets. I cannot help painting these women in garish colours; perhaps I do so in order to express the intensity of their lives?" (quoted in J. van Adrichem, "Kees van Dongen's early years in Rotterdam and Paris," exh. cat., op. cit, p. 7). Kuspit concurred, "Over and over again the autonomy of woman is asserted, even in her voluptuousness--desirability--is declared. The artist desires and envies her independence of being as much as--perhaps more than--he desires her body" (ibid., p. 41).
(fig. 1) Édouard Manet, L'Olympia, 1863. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 2) Master of Flémalle, Virgin and Child before a Fire-Screen. National Gallery, London.