A key player in the early twentieth century avant-garde, Kees van Dongen (1877-1968) was a founder of Fauvism and champion of Expressionism. Known for his portraits of singers, prostitutes, and celebrities alike, rendered in strident, unblended colors, van Dongen pioneered a new aesthetic of portraiture that was well received publicly and critically and nfluence a number of significant artists.
The artist was born into a Dutch bourgeois family on January 26, 1877 in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. He worked in the family brewery until he was sixteen, when he enrolled full-time at the Akademie voor Beeldende Kunsten in Rotterdam. His early works were naturalistic drawings and paintings in neutral colors, very unlike the bright portraits that would bring him critical success later in his career. Known for his suggestive portraits of prostitutes and society ladies, van Dongen’s interest in the female body as a subject began at school when he frequently depicted Rotterdam’s Red District.
After four years at school in the Netherlands, van Dongen moved to Paris and settled in Montmartre. He quickly joined the anarchist groups in the city and was caught up in the many avant-garde movements of early twentieth century Paris. Experimenting with Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Fauvism, Die Brücke and later Expressionism, van Dongen’s oeuvre is a visual record of the early modern avant-garde. During this time, he exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne, working and socializing with artists such as André Derain, Pablo Picasso, and his rival, Henri Matisse.
Beginning with his Fauvist works, van Dongen’s palette shifted from neutral, classicizing tones to the bright and almost garish colors associated with the movement. His portraits are filled with shadows and highlights of vivid colors like acid green and lemon yellow, rather than more traditional flesh tones. He predominantly painted the prostitutes of Montmartre, elongating their bodies and exaggerating their features. For van Dongen, portraiture was an experiment in the depiction of the human body through amplified colors and distortion of the figure rather than a psychological investigation of the sitter. The images are sensual and voyeuristic. The manipulation of form was essential to van Dongen’s practice for he viewed painting as “the most beautiful of lies.”
As van Dongen gained critical success, he travelled through Europe and northern Africa. He was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1926. By the 1930s, van Dongen no longer participated in radical political or artistic movements and instead focused on commissioned portraits of the Parisian elite. He was highly regarded as a portraitist for the ladies of high society Paris, where he lived for most of his career, until eventually moving to Monaco in 1959. In these portraits, the women rarely look directly at the viewer. Posed in bust-length views composed of bold, almost Fauvist colors, van Dongen depicts the women with large eyes and heavily flushed cheeks against indistinct backgrounds captured in loose, painterly brushstrokes.
Van Dongen was ousted from avant-garde artistic circles when he accepted an invitation to an all-expenses-paid Nazi propaganda tour in 1941, and he was subsequently banned from the Salon d’Automne for this association with the Nazi party. A controversial figure in art history, van Dongen’s later political associations and focus on society portraiture have often overshadowed his influential role in the development of modernism in early twentieth-century Paris.