Kees Van Dongen: The fashionable Fauve
By Béa Aaronson
The great Dutch painter Kees Van Dongen was born in 1877 with a rebellious nature and possessed by a desire to enjoy all of life’s pleasures. He was one of the greatest colorists of the 20th century and his paintings were hung alongside Matisse and the rest of the Fauves, (the wild beasts,) at the famous 1905 Salon d’Automne.
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Van Dongen continued with his own brand of Fauvism while the other Fauve painters followed different artistic directions. The Dutchman’s palette was a mixture of rich and luscious colors, especially those acidic greens that contrasted so brilliantly with his flowing red beard and piercing blue eyes. A sharp draughtsman as well, he could assimilate anything he was shown, very quickly and with great ease.
Van Dongen is best known as ¨the painter of women.” He painted them all! Street girls from Rotterdam, prostitutes from Montmartre, shameless vixens of the Folies Bergères, and, as one French critic called them, those “fashionable Paris high society neurotics!”
His quest and thirst for success and glory, his desire to be a star, were at the top of his list and he devoured these accomplishments with an appetite that seemed endless. Before the First World War, high society ladies and countesses were flocking to his studio to be painted like prostitutes and “femmes fatales,” with blazing delicious colors that both shocked and seduced the model and all of Paris at the same time.
The Who’s Who of Paris between the two World Wars were his models and he would wear his beret at a rakish angle with his pipe tightly clenched between his teeth as he painted the “crème de la crème” of international society with his dazzling and strident palette.
But, despite his immeasurable success, his constant practical jokes, self-conceit, and malicious statements did him in with many people, patrons, critics, and other artists as well. Toward the end of his life, Van Dongen continued to paint for himself in his massive studio on the Left Bank of Paris where once before, all of Paris and the world had come to visit and patronize his talents. He finally left France and exiled himself in Monaco, where he died in May 1968.