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.
'All women have their beauty and charm which I glorify … big eyes … long eyelashes, satin smooth or matte skin … pearls and brilliants… And the shimmer of satins and velvets, the softness and warmth of furs. You have to want to touch a painting, for it to be a pleasure for all the senses. A painting must be something which is exciting and glorifies life …’ – Kees Van Dongen (quoted in A. Hopmans, All Eyes on Kees van Dongen, exh. cat., Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 2010, p. 152).
According to an article published in 1920, Kees van Dongen was considered, ‘along with Picasso, Matisse and Derain, to be among the greatest artists living in France’ at the dawn of the new decade, celebrated for his elegant, glamorous depictions of the doyens of Parisian high society (W. F. A. Roëll, quoted in A. Hopmans, All Eyes on Kees van Dongen, exh. cat., Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 2010, p. 143). Contemporary commentators believed that Van Dongen’s success during this period lay partly in the extravagant, glittering parties and vernissages he threw in his mansion on the rue Juliette Lamber, where the most glamorous figures of the day would mingle, dance, and admire the endless array of paintings that decorated the space.
A description of one of these exclusive private openings which appeared in the newspaper Écouter just a few short months before the present work was painted, captures the intoxicating atmosphere of these events: ‘At midnight five hundred people filled every floor of Van Dongen’s townhouse in peaceful rue Juliette Lamber. Women in furs and pearls, men in tails and tuxedos, Montparnassians in jackets with their girlfriends in clinging sweaters… Van Dongen himself, in a jacket, pipe between his teeth, maintained an altogether Dutch calm, and without reacting in the slightest, was greatly occupied with allowing himself to be looked at by so many Levantines, Bulgarians, Americans, Brazilians, Czechoslovakians – nocturnal butterflies attracted from the four corners of the world by this blazing fire…’ (quoted in N. Bondil & J. M. Bouhours, eds., Van Dongen, exh. cat.,Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, 2008, p. 260). It was from this heady world of decadence and style, fashion and culture, that the sitters for Van Dongen’s paintings came, drawn to the luxurious images of femininity that he produced.
Dating from the frenzied height of this stage of Van Dongen’s career, Madame T. captures the elegant figure of Madame Daisy Thorel in all her finery, dressed in a sumptuous silk gown with lace detailing, an ostrich feather fan clutched in her right hand. According to the sitter, this grand portrait was commissioned by her husband, Emile, who had greatly admired Van Dongen’s work for a number of years. Visiting the artist at his elegant mansion, Madame Thorel recalled attending just four single hour sessions with Van Dongen, remarking as to the speed and skill with which the artist captured her likeness. Imbuing her figure with an ethereal grace, Van Dongen subtly elongates his sitter’s form, emphasising the litheness of her body through the long, sinuous lines of her limbs. His abiding interest in fashion, meanwhile, along with his knowledge of the latest trends and keen sense of the zeitgeist drew the artist’s attention to the sumptuous textures and intricate detailing of Madame Thorel’s costume, while the striking engagement ring on her left hand is skilfully picked out, its central gemstone sparkling as it catches the light. For the artist, these exquisite portraits were much more than individual recordings of customers and acquaintances though – they represented the spirit of the age, a visual embodiment of the world of beauty and high fashion Van Dongen inhabited.