This work will be included in the forthcoming Van Dongen Digital Catalogue Raisonné, currently being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc.
‘I am … accustomed to drawing a line round my models – when I paint them – in different colours, yellow, white, red or green … The sketch is usually done very quickly, and then I leave the [painting], not looking at it again until I see the colours I need … You see, a painter suddenly realises what the right colours are’ (Van Dongen, quoted in T. Schoon, J. van Adrichem &. H. de Man, eds., Kees van Dongen, exh. cat., Rotterdam, 1989, p. 15).
‘I know every one of those women’s histories … They have experienced life in all its facets …’ (Van Dongen, quoted in T. Schoon, J. van Adrichem &. H. de Man, eds., Kees van Dongen, exh. cat., Rotterdam, 1989, p. 7).
‘I cannot help painting these women in garish colours; perhaps I do so in order to express the intensity of their lives?’ (Van Dongen, quoted in T. Schoon, J. van Adrichem &. H. de Man, eds., Kees van Dongen, exh. cat., Rotterdam, 1989, p. 7).
‘I exteriorise my desires by expressing them in pictures…I love anything that glitters, precious stones that sparkle, beautiful women who arouse carnal desire… Painting lets me possess all this most fully’ (Van Dongen, quoted in J. Freeman, Fauves, exh. cat., New South Wales and London, 1995, p. 118).
When Kees van Dongen first arrived in Paris, he was immediately struck by the vitality and modernity of the French capital. The artist later explained that the city had attracted him ‘like a lighthouse,’ pulling him in to the hedonistic world of cabarets and nightclubs that filled Montmartre and the Pigalle (Van Dongen, quoted in A. Hopmans, The Van Dongen Nobody Knows: Early and Fauvist Drawings 1895-1912, exh. cat, Rotterdam, Lyons and Paris, 1997, p. 26). Thrusting himself with abandon into the hurly burly of life in the French capital, Van Dongen became one of the foremost chroniclers of the fashionable, vibrant milieu that thronged its streets, the night owls who kicked-up their heels, drinking and dancing the night away. Women soon became his primary subject matter, their elegant, sensuous forms absorbing him endlessly, as he sought to capture a sense of their sexual power and magnetic appeal. Often drawing his models from the world of dancers, performers and cabaret artists that spent their nights dazzling crowds in the clubs and theatres that surrounded his studio, Van Dongen developed a fascination for the intense eroticism of the female body, explaining: ‘I exteriorise my desires by expressing them in pictures…I love anything that glitters, precious stones that sparkle, beautiful women who arouse carnal desire… Painting lets me possess all this most fully’ (Van Dongen, quoted in J. Freeman, Fauves, exh. cat., New South Wales and London, 1995, p. 118). Celebrating the heady atmosphere of Paris during the opening decade of the Twentieth Century, Van Dongen’s paintings revel in depicting beautiful women, both in the nude and in the most up-to-date fashions, inviting the viewer to indulge in the sensual world of entertainment, eroticism and enjoyment in which he immersed himself.
Contemporary critics frequently lauded Van Dongen’s ‘Baudelairean gaze,’ complementing his ability to capture the subtlest details of a scene, which he then used to accurately convey a sense of the vibrant atmosphere of life in contemporary Paris. The Dutch writer Carel Scharten visited the artist in his studio in the weeks immediately preceding a 1904 exhibition at the Parisian gallery space of Ambroise Vollard, and was struck by the immediacy of Van Dongen’s art: ‘He works simply and solely in the moment; he does his drawings sitting somewhere in a bar and covers the large sheets of shelf paper in an instant, one after the other… He captures the moment…’ (C. Scharten, quoted in A. Hopmans, All eyes on Kees van Dongen, exh. cat., Rotterdam, 2010, p. 21). Commenting on the artist’s sensitivity and unfiltered translation of his subject matter, Scharten summarised: ‘What he sees, just so, instantly, as soon as it strikes him, that’s how it appears on canvas and paper; he can’t do it any other way’ (ibid). A modern incarnation of the flâneur, Van Dongen combined his keen observational skills with a cutting-edge, painterly aesthetic, using an expressive approach to colour that aligned his painting with the revolutionary circle of artists known as Les Fauves. Earning their moniker at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, figures such as Henri Matisse and André Derain exploded onto the Parisian art scene with their boldly clashing pigments and visceral application of paint, challenging the mimetic traditions of painting by freeing colour from its descriptive role. While Van Dongen had not exhibited alongside the ‘Wild Beasts’ during the 1905 Salon, he subsequently became associated with their milieu, and rapidly earned a reputation as one of the boldest and most original of the artists involved in Fauvism.
During this period, Van Dongen was living in the artistic heart of Paris, Montmartre, where he rented rooms in the infamous warren of artist’s studios known as Bateau-Lavoir, on the rue Ravignan. Establishing himself in the studio to the left of the entrance on the ground floor, Van Dongen often found himself directing visitors to the rooms of his neighbour, Pablo Picasso, whose studio lay on the same floor. The two artists struck up a close friendship during the years that they lived and worked side by side, exchanging works of art, conversing endlessly about their painterly practice, and spending hours in and out of one another’s work spaces. A circle of avant-garde thinkers, writers and artists gathered around Picasso, visiting the artist at Bateau-Lavoir on an almost daily basis. As a result, Van Dongen came into contact with such revolutionary figures as Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob and André Salmon, while in 1906 visitors included André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Georges Braque, and Henri Rousseau, whom Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s lover and muse during this period, often referred to as ‘the Customs man.’ Immersed in this intoxicating world of artistic revolutionaries, Van Dongen began to forge a new path in his art, embracing vibrant, expressive colours, visceral brushwork and a thoroughly modern approach to his subjects.
The anonymous model at the heart of La femme au collier-fond rouge exudes a sense of stillness and grace as she twists to face us, captivating the viewer with her enigmatic expression and magnetic gaze. Her heavily kohled eyes and elegantly rouged lips identify her as a thoroughly modern woman, for whom a stylish appearance was an important element of her identity. Van Dongen often added elaborate headwear to his models, asking them to adopt large, stylish hats as they posed for him. While it is unclear if the fashionable accoutrements were brought by the models themselves, or if Van Dongen procured them and subsequently asked the women to wear them, they were a recurrent motif that ran through many of his compositions during this period. Using them to heighten the visual power of the composition, these hats dominate works like La Dame au chapeau noir (c. 1911), where the elegant curving chapeau occupies almost a third of the canvas, its dramatic profile adding a new theatricality to the woman’s form, while works like La Parisienne de Montmartre (c. 1910), utilise the bright floral accessories that were particularly fashionable at the turn of the century to add new notes of colour to the compositions. In the present work, a relatively simple sun-hat is transformed by the addition of a dark grey scarf tied around its crown, which then cascades down the model’s back in a column of material. In keeping with the simple elegance of the rest of her costume, the hat adds to the woman’s graceful air, a visual flourish that marks her out as a fashionable, well-presented young mademoiselle, a typical sight from the streets of Paris.
There is a distinct air of mystery to Van Dongen’s model, her extreme stillness and enigmatic expression revealing little insight into her character, her internal musings, or the emotions she feels as she stands before the artist. Though she makes direct eye contact with the painter, and thus the viewer, she remains distant, somewhat aloof, impenetrable to our probing gaze. Radiating a sense of carefully controlled composure, her secrets, wishes and thoughts remain hidden behind her elegant façade. Although we may wonder as to her identity, as to whether she hails from the beau- or demi-monde for example, or how she came to model for Van Dongen, our questions are left unanswered and she remains a mysterious, romantic vision of the fashionable, elegant women that thronged the streets of Paris in the opening years of the Twentieth Century. Set against an unadorned, but vibrantly coloured backdrop, she is divorced from any context that may provide us further insight into her life, ensuring that our attention is focused solely on her body, on her chic attire, and the power of her absorbing gaze.
While many of his contemporaries thrilled in capturing the ephemeral effects of nature and the fleeting play of sunlight, Van Dongen deliberately set out to paint his night-birds in their natural, nocturnal habitat, bathing their forms in the intense glare of artificial, electric lights. Van Dongen had embraced this aspect of modernity almost as soon as he arrived in Paris, using it prominently in his compositions of theatres and dancing crowds in the nightclubs of Montmartre. In 1908 he went so far as to install several electric lamps in his studio, using the electric wiring of the nearby Folies-Bergère to power his lights. Fernande Olivier, who modelled for Van Dongen during this period, recalled the ‘blinding’ light that they emitted, which made the artist’s colours shine: ‘it was the age of ultramarine against vermilion grounds, where harsh shades encircled his figures like haloes’ (F. Olivier, quoted in ibid., p. 85). In Le femme au collier-fond rouge, the use of electric lighting is evident in the sharp contrasts between light and shadow that mark the edges and contours of the woman’s form, her skin aglow with a luminous, white tone caused by the bright light bouncing of her body. To achieve this effect, a lamp appears to have been placed to the immediate left of the edge of the composition, directly in front of the model, so that her face is illuminated by its bright rays, despite the wide brim of her hat. The play of light and shadow is given particular emphasis in her face, where the simple gesture of turning her gaze towards us, completely transforms our perception of her visage – it becomes split into two planes, one illuminated by the brilliant light, while the other is cast in deep, colourful shadows of orange and yellow that absorb and reflect the tones of her surroundings.
The modern electric light brought a new intensity to Van Dongen’s colours, introducing skins of vibrant green, shadows of variegated lilac, and contours of scarlet red to his paintings, each tone capturing a sense of the myriad new colours that the electric lights revealed. It was this aspect of his work that Marius-Ary Leblond (the pen-name of the writers, art-critics and historians George Athénas and Aimé Merlo) drew attention to in the preface of the catalogue produced for the artist’s exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in 1908: ‘[Van Dongen] breaks down the harmonies of the rosy skin, in which he discovers acid greens, blood orange reds, phosphorous yellows, vinous lilac, electric blues…instead of juxtaposing these shades in narrow strokes, he spreads them out in isolation, each over large areas…’ (Leblond, quoted T. Schoon, J. van Adrichem &. H. de Man, eds., Kees van Dongen, exh. cat., Rotterdam, 1989, p. 153). In the present work, the model’s illuminated skin becomes a dazzling play of subtly shifting creamy tones, while delicate touches of bright red and pink are used to define her contours. The lights generate a strange, radiating halo effect around her body, which hugs the models silhouette and creates an almost ghostly, glowing echo of her form that slowly disappears into the richly hued surroundings. Executed in rich layers of visceral, visible strokes of paint, Van Dongen draws our attention to the very act of the painting’s creation, making every gesture of the brush, every layering of paint visible on the surface of the canvas. Shifting from long, sweeping strokes of pigment to short, stippled daubs of colour, Van Dongen achieves a nuanced texture, evocatively capturing a sense of the delicate play of the artificial light as it dances over the model’s skin.
La femme au collier-fond rouge formerly graced the collection of the pioneering cosmetics entrepreneur and avid patron of the arts, Helena Rubinstein. During her decades-long reign as one of the most successful businesswomen in the world, Rubinstein earned a reputation as a voracious and astute collector of avant-garde art, purchasing works by some of the leading figures of the early-twentieth century, which she then installed in her high-end cosmetic boutiques and beauty salons around the world. These lavishly decorated spaces, which were designed by Rubinstein herself to look like domestic interiors, blurred the boundaries between commercial space and private art gallery, with each salon containing carefully selected pieces from her personal collection. Many of Rubinstein’s outlets also feature specially commissioned installations and artworks from some of the most fashionable artists of the time, imbuing her salons with a cultural cache that many of her rivals remained unable to match. With its elegant young protagonist, La femme au collier-fond rouge may be seen as the embodiment of the image of fashionable femininity that Rubinstein hoped to project through her spaces and products – her customers would have seen in her chic dress, delicate string of pearls and subtly made-up features a reflection of themselves, or rather a promise of who they could be, with the aid of Rubenstein’s products. Drawn to her poise, grace and the magnetism of her gaze, Rubinstein purchased the painting directly from the artist’s wife, and it remained in her collection until the late 1960s.