To be included in the forthcoming Kees van Dongen catalogue raisonné being prepared by Jacques Chalom Des Cordes under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
During the 1920s, les années folles, Van Dongen declared, "I passionately love the life of my time, so animated, so feverish. Ah! Life is even more beautiful than painting" (quoted in W.E. Steadman and D. Sutton, Van Dongen, exh. cat., The University of Arizona Art Museum, 1971, p. 46). Van Dongen pursued his love of modern life in the cabarets, restaurants and salons of Paris, and in the seaside resorts where his upper-class clientele took their holidays. "I love novelty, the unpublished, that which has not been made before" (ibid.). He sought the patronage of the aristocracy and the nouveau riche, was a favorite guest in the salons of Paris, and hosted his own soirées. His social affinities gave him an excellent vantage point from which he could observe and chronicle contemporary glamour, fashion and mores. Indeed, his view of those fabled years between the wars is all the more valuable because he was genuinely a participant in the passing parade. He did not seek or play the roles of the detached moralist or critic; he chose instead to let his sitters and subjects speak for this lifestyle and themselves. Louis Chaumeil called van Dongen "le roi et peintre de son temps" (in Van Dongen, Geneva, 1967, p. 216).
The Folle époque coincided with the classical revival in painting, the "call to order" following the First World War, which sanctioned artists look to earlier styles and subjects as a viable model for treating subjects drawn from contemporary life. In the present painting van Dongen has depicted a thoroughly modern, full frontal Vénus. She may hint at the nude but still demure Renaissance maiden painted by Botticelli, and her pose may even have been inspired by Bouguereau's 19th century rendering of the birth of the goddess of beauty and love (fig. 1). However, the allure of van Dongen's Vénus is more brazenly sexual than of most of her predecessors. She is neither idealized nor sentimentalized, and her presence is strongly felt. She represents a powerful new woman, both in her self-assured attitude and her athletic physique, as also seen in Lempicka's paintings of nudes of the 1920s (see lot 24). If this temptress, like the goddess of the classical legend, makes herself unavailable to most mortals, it is not the outcome of divine strictures or fate, but a matter of her own free will and choice. "You may admire my body," she seems to say, "but you may come near only if I let you."
Venus' pose here is in fact a classic stance used by models in life-drawing classes, lifted to an altogether more dramatic level by Van Dongen's typically bravura brushwork. This picture may even reference the soft-core men's magazines that were published in the 1930s, such as Paris Magazine and Mon Paris, from which Francis Picabia clipped images as sources for his paintings of erotically-charged nudes and scantily clad women. The nude model for Van Dongen's Vénus appears in another painting executed in 1936, Autoportrait, in which the 58-year old artist displayed himself naked, standing before her in his studio (see Van Dongen, le peintre, exh. cat., Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1990, p. 202). Van Dongen revived this Venus pose to depict a beautiful siren with streaming flaxen hair in a lithograph illustrating Voltaire's La Princesse de Babylon, published by Mourlot-frères, Paris, in 1948 (Juffermans, B, no. 12).
(fig. 1) William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Naissance de Vénus, 1879. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE 23657663