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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 25 MARCH 2009 — The magnificent book, Van Dongen, edited by Nathalie Bondil, chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and Jean-Michel Bouhours, chief curator of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, has recently been published in conjunction with the exhibition Van Dongen: Painting The Town Fauve, currently being hosted at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (until 19 April). But while the exhibition, by its very title, tends to concentrate on Van Dongen's 'fauvist' period, which at its height lasted merely a couple of years, the book, more a monograph than a catalogue of the show, gives sweeping coverage in exhaustive detail of the whole of Kees Van Dongen's extraordinary life, which covered almost a century.

Kees Van Dongen:Young Arab, 1911
Oil on canvas, 104 x 65 cm
Private Collection
© Estate of Kees van Dongen
Photo courtesy of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

The Dutch painter, 1877 -1968, who remained on the margin of the Fauves' history, is however best known to many amateur art-lovers in France as the painter of Parisian high society, as the portrait painter of celebrities, society women and demi-mondaines, so when the magazine of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts writes about Van Dongen's scandalous art , about his "dazzling and shameless paintings" and the fact that Van Dongen was an observer of the "dregs of society," it should be pointed out that that was only part of his work. For I possess, not a painting, alas sold years ago, but a lithograph of an aunt, Vera, a Russian émigré who was one of van Dongen's models, muses, and, maybe, mistresses, and who belonged to that transition period of his life between the "Cocktail era" and that of the bohemian artist. And Vera was not an unmarried mother or prostitute, nor was she a nocturnal reveler.

Kees Van Dongen: Tabarin Wrestlers, 1907-1908
Oil on canvas, 105,5 x 164 cm
Nouveau Musée National de Monaco
© Estate of Kees Van Dongen
Photo courtesy of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Vera is, or was, exceedingly beautiful in a quiet, pale, understated way. Small and slender, with huge dark almond-shaped eyes, she resembled more one of the ballerinas the artist met at performances of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes at the Chatelet in Paris, rather than the buxom wenches adorning the walls of the Canadian museum's walls. Completed in 1913, when he was beginning to move in the most stylish Parisian circles and meeting the likes of Max Jacob and Apollinaire, the portrait of Vera shows an elongated, elegant young woman in "dishabille." Fauvism was already a thing of the past, and Van Dongen's harsh, violent colours were being replaced by more refined harmonies, as in the lithograph of Vera, which is finished in tones of grey, green and soft blue. It was also around this time that Paris society began to flock to his parties and to his studio to have their portraits painted.

Kees Van Dongen: Lucie, la mulâtresse, c. 1910
Oil on canvas, 100 x 81 cm
Photo courtesy of
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

For, despite his claims of being an anarchist, the postwar years saw him rapidly become the most fashionable portraitist in Paris, when a close friendship with the fabulously wealthy Marchesa Casati opened doors to the whole of the avant-garde society. He developed his "wide-eyed" women, now portrayed with painted lips and bedecked with jewels, women with "eyes as enormous as their jewels, whose carats are depicted with rays." Some of his most beautiful works belong to this period - paintings which include Urn with Flowers, where a near-naked, red-haired woman is contemplating herself in a mirror, apparently waiting for a man on horseback with a drawn sword to arrive, as the image on the wall behind her suggests. Woman with a Blue Greyhound, Standing Nude, Carmen Vincente Dancing, the opera singer, Mademoiselle Genevieve Vix in the role of Salome, Woman with Fan or Madame Lucie Gérard, and Maria Ricotti were all completed in the early twenties. Such masterpieces as Portrait of a Woman wearing Jewelry, Young Lady with Lilies and the more languid and sensual Woman on a Sofa, were completed a few years later.

Kees Van Dongen: Woman on a Sofa, ca. 1930
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Photo courtesy of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Indeed, Woman on a Sofa perfectly illustrates Van Dongen's love for long, leggy Parisian women, preferably decked out in diaphanous silks, brocades and sequins, although in this particular painting, the woman is voluptuously ensconced in furs. These postwar years also saw him in the fashionable resorts of Cannes and Deauville, where his sitters included not only the King of Belgium, but the Aga Khan and his Begum, the former Yvette Labrousse, Miss France 1930.

Kees Van Dongen: Jasmy Jacob or Madame Jasmy Alvin, 1925
Oil on canvas, 195 x 131,5 cm
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
© Estate of Kees van Dongen
Photo courtesy of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Three interesting interviews in which Van Dongen talked to Paul Guth, René Bernard and Henri Perruchot are reproduced in the book, in which the artist talks freely about several of his paintings, including his famous and scandalous portrait of Anatole France. He painted the legendary French writer, he gleefully told them, as a senile old man, "only half there." He painted old age with a rare fierceness.

Kees Van Dongen: Fauve Self-Portrait, 1908 - 1909
Oil on canvas, 55 x 38 cm
© Estate of Kees van Dongen
Photo courtesy of Montreal Museum of Fine Art

Neither did he spare himself, painting self portraits twice in the nude, once in 1895, and again in 1935 in technicolour, full-length and facing front, with nothing left to the imagination except to wonder why a man of 58 should be portrayed with an old man's face atop a young man's body. A naked woman, pubic hair aglow, lurks in the background.

Kees Van Dongen: Tango or The Tango of the Archangel, ca. 1923 - 1935
Oil on canvas, 146 x 146 cm
Nouveau Musée National de Monaco
© Estate of Kees van Dongen
Photo courtesy of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

But it was always women who dominated his paintings, from his very early works until the end of his life. At first, he depicted prostitutes and gypsies, when they were all he had to paint, then the more beautiful society women when he had access to them, not excluding a whole range of portraits of the latest cinema, opera and stage sensations. This superb book gives not only a huge range of his paintings themselves, but also a greater understanding of this mythical Dutch painter, " a force of nature," to quote Jean-Marie Van Dongen, his only son, born in 1940 from a second marriage to Marie-Claire.

Van Dongen
By Nathalie Bondil and Jean-Michel Bouhours

Hardcover: 351 pages (2008)
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Nouveau Musée National de Monaco
ISBN: 978-2-89192-332-3

French Edition: ISBN: 978-2-89192-331-6

Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at She last wrote on the American artist Jeff Koons: Dispatch From Versailles: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime.

Kees Van Dongen: Painting The Town Fauve
Through 19 April 2009
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)
1379 Sherbrooke Street West
Montreal, Quebec

Other venues: Barcelona, Spain
Museu Picasso de Barcelona
12 June - 20 September 2009

Title Image: Kees Van Dongen: La Valse chaloupée ou Mistinguette et Max Dearly dansant, ca. 1909
Oil on canvas, 130 x 97 cm
Private collection
© Estate of Kees van Dongen
Photo courtesy of Nouveau Musée National de Monaco

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