The Comité Van Dongen will include this painting in the forthcoming Kees van Dongen catalogue critique being prepared by Jacques Chalom des Cordes under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
The subject of this Van Dongen portrait is Léa "Jasmy" Alvin, née Jacob, the artist's mistress from 1916 to 1927, who more than anyone else helped Van Dongen to capitalize on his talents and secure his enviable position as the leading portrait painter in Paris, and to become one of the most visibly famous artists in Europe during the late teens and the interwar period. Both Van Dongen and Picasso had once occupied studios in the dilapidated Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre, where they scraped by to make ends meet. Both men decamped from Montmartre for Montparnasse in 1912, and by the beginning of the First World War in 1914 they were among the most famous and financially secure artists who also held avant-garde credentials. As allied foreign nationals living in Paris they were exempt from wartime service in the French military. Through his marriage to Olga Khokhlova in 1917, and largely at her urging, Picasso took on the trappings of a haute-bourgeois life style, entering what his friend, the perpetually penurious poet Max Jacob (no relation to Jasmy) dubbed his "epoch des duchesses." Around the same time, Van Dongen likewise entered on to an ever ascending social track and met with even further financial success as a painter, thanks in no small part to Jasmy's efforts on his behalf.
Both Van Dongen and Jasmy were married when they met. During the summer of 1914 Van Dongen's wife Guus and daughter Dolly returned to Rotterdam for their annual holiday among her family. The outbreak of the war in August prevented the artist from joining them, and them from returning to Paris. Van Dongen had already engaged in extra-marital affairs, and he took advantage of his wife's absence to commence a serious and open relationship with Jasmy. When Guus and Dolly finally arrived back in Paris at war's end in 1918, Van Dongen refused to see them, and eventually divorced Guus.
Jasmy had all the qualities Van Dongen had been seeking in a new partner: glamour, a strong personality, an excellent business sense, far-ranging social connections, and unbounded ambition. Jasmy began her career as a saleswoman for various couturiers. When she and Van Dongen were introduced to each other she was the sales director of the couture house Jenny (Jeanne Adèle Bernard). Jean Melas Kyriazi has described Jasmy:
"Although not a great beauty, she was a dynamic woman of impeccable breeding. She had the bearing of a top model, dressed extravagantly, and in everything she wore, she looked stunning. She had numerous affairs and had even been nicknamed "Jasmy the Divine." Because of her fiery temper, she had also been christened "Jasmy the Terrifying." Van Dongen and Jasmy knew immediately they were made for each other and set out together to conquer Paris. Van Dongen was not a malleable man, but Jasmy changed the way he lived as artist, his character, his relationships. In short, when her reign came to an end ten years later, Van Dongen was another man. A strong minded, intelligent and authoritarian woman, she brought cachet to Van Dongen's parties, and urged him along the road to fame" (Van Dongen après le fauvisme, Lausanne, 1976, pp. 24-26).
Van Dongen painted this portrait of Jasmy, perhaps his first, in his studio at 33, rue Denfert-Rochereau, near Montparnasse, which he had occupied since 1912. His studio had been the site of many celebrated parties, including a bal costumé in 1914 in which the worlds of art, fashion, aspiring high society and the demi-monde mingled in a legendary last fling before the First World War. In 1917 Van Dongen and Jasmy moved to a townhouse at 29 Villa Saïd, near the fashionable Bois du Boulogne. Jasmy entertained on a lavish scale, bringing many new clients to Van Dongen's door. From 1919 to 1928 Van Dongen exhibited only portraits in the Salons, having become the most fashionable portraitist in Paris. He painted the well-heeled and famous, ranging from serious intellectuals such as Anatole France, the doyen of French literature, in 1917, to prosperous doctors and businessmen, society hostesses, and their pretty daughters. In Louis Chaumeil's words, Van Dongen had become the "peintre et roi de son temps" (Van Dongen, Geneva, 1967, p. 216).