Monday, September 6, 2010

Kees van Dongen - Her Body is my Landscape

 Kees van Dongen, Tango of the Archangel, 1922

Kees van Dongen (1877-1968) was a somewhat cynical cuss, but with a sense of humor. He cut a flamboyant figure in Paris. His lifestyle was controversial, his lavish nightly studio parties were attended by film stars, masqued politicians and artists. "Woman" was his muse, her body his landscape, and the young Brigitte Bardot his most famous model. What Andy Warhol was to New York in the 1960s, Kees van Dongen was to Paris - a society artist and bohemien who brought added colour and excitement to the upper classes of the city.

 Kees van Dongen, Masque articulé, "Les oiseaux bleus", 1920s

Kees van Dongen was born in Delfshaven, a suburb of Rotterdam. Showing early artistic promise, he studied in the evenings at the Académie des Beaux-Arts of Rotterdam from 1892 to 1897. He spent much of his spare time at the docks, sketching sailors and prostitutes. He earned his living by day, illustrating for satirical journals including Groene and Rotterdam Nieuwsblad. His spicy drawings of life at the harbour caused some scandal.

 Kees van Dongen - Buveuse d'absinthe, 1902

In 1899, van Dongen settled in Paris. Shortly thereafter, he married a fellow painter, Augusta Preitinger, whom he had met at the Rotterdam Academy. Van Dongen's primary source of financial support was the illustrations he did for anarchist and other publications, including Le Rire, Gil Blas, and La Revue Blanche. One issue of the left-wing review L'Assiette au Beurre - a special issue devoted to prostitution in contemporary Paris, a phenomenon thought to be symptomatic of the degeneration of the bourgeoisie - was illustrated entirely by van Dongen.

Kees van Dongen, Nightclub: The Singer Johnny Hudgins, 1927

In 1904, van Dongen exhibited some 100 works at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, a champion of avant-garde art. The catalogue of the show was introduced by the famous anarchist and art critic Félix Fénéon. The next year, he showed pictures at the Salon des Indépendants and Salon d'Automne alongside a loose collection of like-minded painters of which Matisse was the ringleader. The riot of color in their work caused a somewhat hostile critic, Louis Vauxcelles, to dub these artists "les fauves" (the wild beasts). Femme Fatale is a typical Fauve painting by van Dongen:

 Kees van Dongen, Femme Fatale, 1905

In a sense, the Fauves were exploring a similar territory to their contemporaries among the German Expressionists, and it is therefore no surprise to find that in 1908, Van Dongen was invited to exhibit alongside the Dresden-based group, Die Brücke. This had followed his making the acquaintance of Max Pechstein during the latter's trip to Paris the previous year. The Brücke artists featured that same year in Van Dongen's correspondence, when he referred to their first exhibition, although he somewhat ungraciously termed them "boches", a deliberately teasing act of provocation considering the letter was addressed to his German dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler

 Kees van Dongen, Self-Portrait as Neptun, 1922

In Paris, van Dongen had found lodging in the famed Bateau-Lavoir (the laundry barge), the name coined by the poet Max Jacob for the seedy Montmartre tenement whose most celebrated resident was Pablo Picasso. Picasso and van Dongen became fast friends, and van Dongen painted Picasso's mistress, Fernande Olivier. Thrust into this fertile artistic and literary milieu, van Dongen cultivated a carefree bohemian image typified by his comment: "I've always played. Painting is nothing but a game." 

 Kees van Dongen, Hassan Badreddine el Bass Raoui (Conte des 1001 nuits), 1918
Van Dongen’s travels through Spain, Morocco and Egypt in 1910 and 1913 resulted in a series of sombre but striking landscapes. His continuing attraction to the exotic led him to accept a commission to illustrate an edition of Les Mille et Une Nuits by Mardrus (above). Van Dongen gained celebrity through the outraged reaction to his large nude of his wife, Tableau, painted in 1913 and now in the Centre Georges Pompidou (below). This picture, shown at the Salon d'Automne the same year that it was painted, was considered so salacious and licentious that the police removed it. 

  Kees van Dongen, Tableau [Augusta Preitinger, the artist's wife], 1913

"For all those who look with their ears, here is a completely naked woman. You are prudish, but I tell you that our sexes are organs that are as amusing as brains, and if the sex was found in the face, in place of the nose (which could have happened), where would prudishness be then? Shamelessness is really a virtue, like the lack of respect for many respectable things.", van Dongen commented upon the virtual detention of his wife.

Kees van Dongen's typical working setup - the subject on a platform and a not-much-smaller than life-size canvas in place.

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, van Dongen acquired a reputation as a socialite, hosting a masquerade party at this home, now in Montparnasse, that was the talk of fashionable Paris in 1914. His licentious nudes and erotic subjects caused a stir among critics and admirers alike. Van Dongen's connections with the rich and famous led him to chronical the Age des Folles and its excessive habits. His portraits of the time range from the world-weary garçonne to well-known figures such as Anatole France. 

 Kees van Dongen, La Femme au canapé, c. 1930

At the end of World War I, van Dongen was discovered by the upper classes, who commissioned him to paint many celebrity portrait. With a playful cynicism he remarked of his popularity as a portraitist with high society women: "The essential thing is to elongate the women and especially to make them slim. After that it just remains to enlarge their jewels. They are ravished." A remark that allies itself to another of his sayings - "Painting is the most beautiful of lies."

 Kees van Dongen, Jasmy Jacob, c. 1920

From 1917 to 1927 van Dongen formed a liaison with Jasmy Jacob, who managed a haute couture house. He seemed as much a participant in as an observer of the fastpaced Roaring Twenties, yet claimed to maintain aesthetic distance: "I very much like being as they say, the painter of elegance and fashion! But I am not, as many wish to believe, a victim of snobbism, of luxury, of the world." But in 1927 van Dongen wrote a biography of Rembrandt that proved to be a largely autobiographical account of a painter encumbered by his own fame. Two years later van Dongen, who had so successfully captured French society in his art, became a French citizen.

Kees van Dongen, Le narrateur et Albert Bloch à la maison close. lllustration pour Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, 1930s

With the economic crash of 1929 van Dongen's artistic fortunes, so dependent on a prosperous society, suffered a temporary setback. Yet he continued to garner significant portrait commissions in the 1930s, including that of the Aga Khan and King Leopold III of Belgium. He complemented his work as a portraitist with a steady stream of book illustrations, including writings by Proust (above) Kipling, Montherlant, Voltaire, Gide, and Baudelaire. In 1938 he met Marie-Claire Huguen, who bore him a son, Jean Marie, in 1940. They finally married in 1953. His career was briefly stalled in the mid-1940s thanks to a sponsored 1941 cultural visit to Nazi-Germany in the company of other French artists including André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. The trip was organized by the artist Heinrich Ehmsen, at that time a German cultural liaison officer in Paris.

 LIFE cover (March 28, 1960) with Kees van Dongen's Portrait of Brigitte Bardot

In the waning years of his life, spent in Monaco, van Dongen was honored by frequent museum retrospectives. He disappeared from this world on May 28, 1968 in Monaco, the same day, all the world had its eyes turned toward the burning barricades in Paris. To disappear almost unnoticed was his final artistic act. Until almost the end he sustained what Apollinaire had called his blend of "opium, ambergris, and eroticism". 


  1. Thank you. That was a good read and a fine selection of images. A very brief, but utterly complete, life of van Dongen. Again, thank you.

  2. Thank you, found this article interesting and complimentary to the other knowledge about van Dongen life. Images are great and also very supporting the story.

    All the best,