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.
Late in 1910, Van Dongen embarked on an extended journey to Spain and Morocco, his first time travelling outside his native Holland and France. Since bursting onto the Parisian stage with the Fauves five years earlier, the self-taught painter had made his name as an irrepressible artiste provocateur, famous—or rather, infamous—for his viscerally erotic depictions of demi-mondaine subjects. Along with Nini, a dancer at the Folies-Bergère, his favourite model was a sultry gypsy girl known as Anita la Bohémienne, alias Fatima, who performed a licentious belly-dance in a dive on the Place Pigalle, the notorious red-light district of Montmartre. Capitalising on the vogue for Orientalism that held Paris in thrall at that time, Anita aroused in Van Dongen a potent daydream of exotic lands, which he now set out to experience first-hand.
Van Dongen’s sensational subjects and colour pyrotechnics had brought him no small measure of success by this time, affording him the disposable income to travel. The estimable Galerie Bernheim-Jeune gave the artist his first major show in November 1908. An impressive number of sales, as well as the positive notices that Van Dongen attracted for his entries to the two salons of 1909, induced the dealer late that year to sign the painter to a seven-year contract, guaranteeing him an annual minimum of six thousand francs. Van Dongen’s fortunes improved even more dramatically when Bernheim-Jeune purchased forty paintings from him in the early autumn of 1910, and quickly sold them. With these earnings, and his prospects for the future as equally promising, Van Dongen left his wife Guus and their young daughter Dolly behind in wintry Paris and headed for the sun-drenched south.
The two countries on Van Dongen’s itinerary were traditional destinations for many a Parisian painter. Spain could offer the touring artist the many glories of its pictorial heritage, as well as the exotic colour of its contemporary culture; in southern Spain, in lands long occupied by the Moors during the Middle Ages, there were numerous sites where one could appreciate the splendour of Islamic arts. Spain also provided a portal to North Africa and a more complete experience of Islamic culture, the basis of the Orientalist tradition in European painting since Delacroix, Ingres, and Renoir. Van Dongen spent the first month of his journey at Seville, where Matisse also travelled that winter, and then crossed over to Tangiers. He returned to Paris early in 1911 with only a few canvases but a trove of sketches, which he developed in the studio into oil paintings on Spanish and North African themes.
Van Dongen exhibited these pictures at Bernheim-Jeune in June 1911, in a solo show entitled Van Dongen Hollande—Paris—Espagne— Maroc. The present painting was included in this widely acclaimed exhibition as Madame veuve rose, a whimsical reference perhaps to the rose-coloured bows on the subject’s bodice. The painting depicts an alluring young woman with jet-black hair and an olive complexion, unmistakably Mediterranean in physical type. She is clad in a lace-trimmed corset that accentuates her hourglass figure, and her hair is piled atop her head in a stylish bouffant secured with gold combs. Looking down to secure a hook on the corset, she smiles to herself as though momentarily interrupted in the midst of dressing by some pleasing, private thought.
A reproduction of the painting from 1914 shows that Van Dongen originally rendered the figure against a solid, light-coloured ground. At a later date—probably around 1942, when he is thought to have also re-worked the backdrop of the roughly contemporaneous Vieux clown (Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva)—he elaborated the present canvas by adding a boudoir setting that heightens the intimacy of the scene. Rather than pairing his model with authentically ethnographic trappings, as in the academic Orientalist tradition, Van Dongen introduced a modernist disjunction between the exotic-looking figure and her Rococo-inspired surroundings; Matisse did much the same when he painted his seductive odalisques within an overtly theatrical, studio setting at Nice. In each case, the effect is to undermine the viewer’s expectations, reminding us that the painting is not a representation of reality, but an artificial pictorial construct—a world that belongs only to art.
In Madame veuve rose, the elaboration of the background also alludes to one of the abiding tropes of Orientalism—the odalisque secluded within the private, exclusively feminine realm of the seraglio. ‘The imaginary exotic Orient was given a particular focus in the fascination which Western visitors had for the women of the East,’ MaryAnn Stevens has written. ‘These unobtainable women, with their veils and secretive lives, haunted the Western visitor and goaded him to seek access, if only in his imagination’ (M.A. Stevens, The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1984, pp. 17-18). Here, the model is depicted in the very foreground of the image, seemingly close enough to touch; the pink curtain in the background parts to reveal a voyeuristic glimpse of her bed-chamber, the inner sanctum of the artist’s erotic fantasy.
‘I exteriorise my desires by expressing them in pictures,’ Van Dongen affirmed. ‘I love anything that glitters, precious stones that sparkle, fabrics that shimmer, beautiful women who arouse carnal desire. Painting lets me possess all this most fully’ (Van Dongen, quoted in M. Giry, Fauvism, Fribourg, 1981, pp. 224 & 226).