The Comité Van Dongen has confirmed the authenticity of this painting and it will be included in the forthcoming Kees van Dongen catalogue raisonné being prepared by Jacques Chalom Des Cordes under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
The present work has been requested for the forthcoming Kees Van Dongen Retrospective, organised by the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco and the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, in collaboration with the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen of Rotterdam, to be held in Monaco from 23 June 2008 - 7 September 2008.
Painted in 1910, L'Ouled Naïl shows the figure of an exotic dancer, rendered in rich colours that heighten the sensuality of the scene and subject. Kees van Dongen has clearly found a subject that has enthused him, and the suggestion of the dancer's form, half-covered by the veils, make his desire and his celebration of the female form palpable. This is made all the more effective by the flashes of contrasting colour, the white of the headdress, the coral-like necklace. The strength of this painting is in the masterful juxtaposition of dark colours and Fauve energy evident in the intense, rich blue of the background, as well as in the contrasts and luminosity that make up the figure of the dancer. Despite the darkness of the rich blue background, Van Dongen has skillfully manipulated the colour contrasts in order to create small but intense, even violent contrasts that manage to convey perfectly the passion and sensuality of the subject as well as her poise, her stillness and her restrained, fixing and engaging gaze.
These plays of colour showed the influence of Van Dongen's travels in 1910. The previous year, he had signed a contract with Bernheim-Jeune. This reflection of his success and recognition allowed him a level of comfort and luxury, and an annual salary, that he had formerly not had. So, in winter in 1910, he travelled first to Spain, then onwards to North Africa. While the title of his exhibition of pictures from this period was Hollande, Italie, Espagne, Maroc, reflecting other journeys as well, the misspelling of the French word for Tunisia (the stretcher reads: TUNSIE) implies that he wandered farther. The Mediterranean, and then North Africa, reignited Van Dongen's Fauve palette, albeit in a more controlled way, at precisely the time that his fellow artists in the movement had begun to abandon it. Van Dongen, influenced by the light of the South as well as by the sights, smells and sounds there, breathed new life into a visual idiom that captured the exotic and erotic with new fervour.
The subject of this painting is especially suited to this new exploration of the fascinating erotic power of exotic subjects. The title of the painting, which Van Dongen wrote on the stretcher on the reverse, is the name of a tribe that has been a lasting source of wonder and even of myth and legend. The Ouled Naïl are a semi-nomadic tribe primarily based in Algeria whose women were famed for being sent out, at a relatively young age, to earn money for their dowries through belly-dancing and sometimes even prostitution. They would then return with their wealth and marry and settle down to family life. These women had been taught the arts of belly-dancing from a young age, and for them it was a part of their people's way of life. They were famed for their dancing, for the first part of which they would be clothed, whereas they would often appear, for the second half, wearing only their headdress and jewellery. This jewellery, which is so evident in Van Dongen's painting, often consisted of coins, especially of gold: the women could in this way carry their wealth with them. They were also famed for often wearing spiked bracelets in order to be able to resist the assaults of any over-enthusiastic admirers.
It is easy to see why the open combination of sexuality and music of the travelling Ouled Naïl dancers fascinated Van Dongen, as well as a string of other artists and photographers from the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centirues. These women were a living legend, all the more mysterious to a Western observer. Added to this, they were the genuine, living embodiment of all that the dancers of Pigalle who had formerly provided Van Dongen with so much of his material had strived to capture. Anita, Nini and other dancers of the Parisian demi-monde had been dressed, or half-dressed, like Odalisques in many of Van Dongen's earlier pictures, but now he was faced with a genuine Algerian dancer and was understandably fascinated. While during his journey to North Africa, he primarily sketched, creating oils from these pictures on his return to Paris, the inscription on the reverse of L'Ouled Naïl implies that this may have been one of the few paintings he executed while on his tours. Otherwise, it may be a telling record of his own memories, his own experiences with these mystical, earthy, erotic figures of semi-myth.
The Ouled Naïl would, in 1914, be the subject of an illustrated article in the National Geographic magazine, and again fourteen years later. In this latter account of an encounter with the tribe, the character of the dancers, the appearance, and the nature of the dance are all recounted in a way that goes some way towards explaining more fully Van Dongen's fascination with them:
'The Ouled Nail glitters with gold and silver. Her face is whitened and rouged; her lips carmined, her eyebrows blackened, her cheeks and chin adorned with spangles. In her ears are gold and or silver earrings, hoops several inches in diameter; across her forehead and about her throat are bands of gold coins of many nations. Around her neck are necklaces of coins or beads from which large ornaments dangle. Massive bracelets and anklets, some six inches broad, some hinged, studded with colored stones adorn her bare arms and angles. Her feet are naked and her toes, like her fingers, are stained with henna.
'No words can do justice to her costume. Her head is swathed in a lovely rainbow-hued, long fringed silk shawl which streams down her back. In a corner of it her hair is tied, except for plaits with colored ribbons hanging down her cheeks.
'Over an innermost gauze garment are two or three silk vests of palest pinks or green, or yellows, and above these a beautiful rose-tinted brocaded silk jacket covered with transparent silver tissue and heavily embroidered with silver bullion. Her waist is swathed with a gold-tissue pink silk sash, and over it gold embroidered red leather belt. She wears wide trousers of pale blue silk hanging baggily over the slender ankles.
'Her dancing! She moves on her toes, but barely raises them from the platform. In her hands she holds a silk handkerchief behind her head or waves it occasionally in the air. But feet, hands, legs, and arms, do not enter much into the dance; she performs chiefly with the muscles of her neck, breast, abdomen, and hips. All her violent motions keep time with the strange music of pipe and flageolet and tom-tom, while five or six other dancers, as gaudily dressed clap their hands or utter little cries at intervals' (National Geographic, February 1928).