Early life

An artist whose career was defined by coloristic expression and unyielding originality, Kees van Dongen grabbed the attention of early 20th-century art connoisseurs with his unique style, ranking him among the leading Modernists of the era. Van Dongen was born in 1877 in the Netherlands as the second of four children in a middle-class family. He showed an early aptitude for art and received his early artistic training at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rotterdam. He moved to Paris in the early 1900s, settling in the Montmartre district, then the artistic hub of the city. There van Dongen found himself immersed in an environment that stimulated his creativity and inspired him to begin exhibiting his paintings. Even in his earliest shows, his works were showcased alongside the artistic masters of the day. During the 1905 Salon d'Automne, van Dongen's paintings were hung in the same gallery as those of 20th-century revolutionary Henri Matisse.
It was from this pivotal showing that Fauvism, whose artists were the so-called "wild beasts" of the early 1900s, was born. Matisse pioneered the Fauvist technique, exemplified by intensely expressive colors and intense brushwork. Van Dongen's early paintings bore the hallmarks of this explosive expression, ushering him into the circle of the leading avant-garde painters of the day, including Maurice de Vlaminck, Edouard Vuillard and Pablo Picasso.


Above all, van Dongen was dedicated to the subject of the modern urban woman, and they remained a central theme throughout his career. He painted everyone from celebrities such as Josephine Baker and Brigitte Bardot to dancers, singers, and prostitutes in Paris' infamous brothels. His portraits of society ladies remain among his most important; as is seen in the present work, he experimented with elongated forms that exaggerated both the elegance and the exoticism of his models.
The onset of World War I proved detrimental to artists across Europe, and van Dongen was no exception. The years immediately following the war, however, were some of his most prolific and profitable. In addition to painting still lives, van Dongen also accepted portrait commissions. By the 1920s, his reputation as a prominent portraitist among the most elite echelons of Parisian society garnered him extraordinarily high wages for his works. These commissions not only granted the artist financial security but also allowed him the freedom to devote significant time to his unending quest for originality.
In 1924, van Dongen was at the height of his international recognition. Between the World Wars, Paris was the place to be for fine art, and van Dongen made quite the impression. In the evenings, the artist would often host lavish parties with his lover, the stunning fashion designer Jasmy Alvin, while by day, he became a highly sought-after portraitist for members of high society. The artist, meanwhile, continued to exhibit his work at all of the major salons following his early successes exhibiting with Matisse, Vlaminck and Derain, among others. In recognition for his contribution to the arts, van Dongen was awarded the most prestigious Légion d'Honneur by the government of France in 1926 and was then awarded the Order of the Crown of Belgium the following year.


Kees van Dongen's work continues to capture the attention of art historians and museums alike. The vast majority of his works are held in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and many more. With his emotionally complex paintings of the European elite, Kees van Dongen helped and modernize the previously conventional genre of portraiture into a sensual and meaningful relationship between artist and subject.