In the 1905 exhibition of the Salon d’Automne, a group of painters consisting of Matisse, Derain, Roualt, Friesz, Manguin, Puy, Valtat, Van Dongen and others now equally well known, showed their work in the same room, grouped around a small bronze in the Florentine manner by the sculptor, Marque. The art critic, Louis Vauxcelles, entered the hall full of riotous colors and exclaimed, looking at the little statue, “Donatello parmi les fauves!” – “Donatello among the wild beasts!” From that moment on, the terms Fauve and Fauvism entered into art history.
Kees Van Dongen has always been classed among the Fauves, but from the beginning he was always an independent spirit who probably would have arrived at the Fauve manner of painting even if he had not met the other great painters comprising the group. In fact, he did not attend any of the schools or ateliers frequented by the other Fauvists, and his earliest extant painting, done when he was only thirteen years old and still living in Holland, shows the genesis of his Fauve style.
Independence and originality marked Van Dongen’s life from the beginning. He was born in Delfshaven, Holland in 1877 and named Cornelius T. M. Van Dongen. His early childhood was passed in Rotterdam. His was the dubious distinction of being expelled from the local school because he sketched incessantly. His family, however, recognized his gifts and therefore sent him to a school of decorative arts with the intention of having him learn industrial design. Young Van Dongen was not enthusiastic about that profession and preferred to spend his time painting landscapes, sketching horses on the towpaths of the canals, or making portraits of the pretty daughters of the sailors in the port.
Kees Van Dongen said he rarely visited the Dutch museums, yet it is interesting to note that a portrait he did of his father in 1895 shows the influence of the Dutch school of portraiture and also shows that Van Dongen had learned to use chiaroscuro, a typical mark of those masters. The eighteen year old artist had made vast strides by the time he painted his father’s portrait, in spite of the fact he had had no formal training in art. Van Dongen is entirely self-taught and never attended an art academy or worked in the atelier of any artist.
His life in Rotterdam stimulated his powers of observation, for there he worked for a daily newspaper as the equivalent of a staff photographer of our own day, sketching crime news. When he later produced drawings for several humorous magazines in Paris, that early training in sharp observation was valuable, and it doubtless contributed greatly to the incisive analysis of the portraits for which he became famous.
Van Dongen might have spent his entire life in Holland if the idea had not occurred to him in 1897 to take advantage of a one-day excursion train to Paris. July 14, Bastille Day, is always an occasion for a celebration in France, and the excursion was organized to allow Dutch tourists to spend the holiday in Paris for one day. However, he saw Paris – and lived there a year. At the end of that time he returned to Holland for a brief visit and then went back to Paris to make France his permanent home, to become one of the leading Fauves, a member of the School of Paris and a luminary of Post-Impressionist painting.
Life in Paris was not easy. Van Dongen wanted to paint and to experiment but was too poor to pay models’ fees. He solved this problem by persuading the prostitutes of Montmartre, where he lived, to pose for him at the price of a cup of coffee well laced with rich cream. He solved the problem of earning his own livelihood by doing many odd jobs such as house painting, doing porter work at Les Halles, sketching at sidewalk cafés and selling the sketches to the patrons, as well as contributing satirical drawings to newspapers and magazines. He was also a newsboy and a fair-ground wrestler.
Living on Montmartre in that period gave him invaluable opportunities to meet other artists and to share in the ferment of artistic life in the early years of this century. Most important of all, he lived at the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre, that strange conglomeration of artists’ studios at the top of the steps leading to No. 13 rue Ravignon, whose inhabitants at one time or another included such famous names as Maufra, Van Dongen, Picasso, Juan Gris, and which was frequented by Matisse, Braque, Derain, Dufy, Marie Laurencin, Utrillo, Lipchitz, Maria Blanchard, Metzinger and Marcoussis. Kees Van Dongen seems never to have forgotten the Beateau-Lavoir and to have retained a nostalgic affection for it, since his villa on the Côte d’Azur was named Le Bateau-Lavoir.
Van Dongen worked to gain his livelihood and he painted assiduously, vigorously, constantly. In 1903, he had his first one-man show in Vollard’s gallery and in 1905 was labeled a “Fauve” when his work appeared in the famous Salon d’Automne group of Fauve artists. But hardly any of his paintings were sold, and when war broke out in 1914, he was still a comparative unknown and still struggling to find the wherewithal for food, shelter, canvases and paint. Not being a French citizen, he was of course not mobilized during the war and so was free to continue painting.
During World War I, Van Dongen met Anatole France, who agreed to pose for him. The resulting portrait was a sensation, a veritable scandal. The critics and the public found it cruel, too realistic, even though Anatole France himself was pleased with it. A nude Van Dongen painted and sent to the Salon d’Automne caused a second scandal. Almost as soon as it was hung, the police took it off the wall and locked it up in a lower room where, naturally, everyone wanted to go to see it. It is a commentary on changing tastes, modes and morals that, twenty-five years later, Van Dongen sent this same painting to the Salon d’Automne again. It was hung in a place of honor and no one was shocked by it.
The period after the war brought Van Dongen to the peak of his fame. His extremely personal style, his richly intense color and fluid line, his skill in portraiture brought all of Paris to his studio. To have one’s portrait painted by Van Dongen became the “rage” and he was besieged by commands. He traveled constantly between Paris, Deauville, Venice and the Côte d’Azur, and everywhere he went the international set pursued him, demanding portraits. Writers, actors, statesmen, women of society – all sat for him and were delighted with his portraits, even though his keen eye and skilled brush depicted not only their physical appearance but also their inner minds, souls and lives.
Van Dongen’s canvases appeared in all the important Salons. His work was shown in many exhibitions in France and abroad; he had frequent Paris shows; his paintings were purchased by leading museums all over the world; and the painter who had once sold his sketches and portraits for a few francs now received astronomical prices for his work.
Kees Van Dongen painted not only portraits for his patrons but also painted for sheer pleasure and for his own delight. Landscapes, still lifes, Paris scenes, seascapes came from his brush, and in them another Van Dongen appeared, a sensitive man whose joy lay in subtle color harmonies, in the beauty of the open country, in recording the life of his time in his beloved Paris.