Between Rotterdam and Paris. The Formative Years
Room 1

As a student at the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Rotterdam, Van Dongen painted his first pictures with a dark palette in the manner of Rembrandt, the master of chiaroscuro — indeed, in 1927 he published a book about Rembrandt that is more autobiography than hagiography in which he did not hesitate to intertwine his own destiny with that of the Master. In these youthful works from the mid 1890s, Van Dongen reveals a personal affinity with the paintings of Jozef Israël, the ‘nineteenth-century Rembrandt’. Van Dongen next painted a series of Dutch landscapes in the Voorhaven in Delfshaven, a neighbourhood dating from the seventeenth century at the front of the port of Rotterdam where his family lived.

His palette brightened and his compositions reveal an already pronounced modernist cast, influenced by the framing used in photographs and films ( Zealander woman). That he could produce in this youthful context the Self-portrait or Self-portrait in blue and Spotted chimera in 1895, authentic pictorial manifestos driven by a fascination with self-representation and allegory, is an extremely strong signal announcing an exceptional destiny.

On his definitive move to Paris in 1899, Van Dongen settled in the Butte Montmartre, where penniless painters, showgirls and cabaret dancers, demi-mondaines and outcasts of all kinds and the occasional stray bourgeois made up a subterranean society that was to inspire his graphic and pictorial universe.

Paris, Drawing
Room 2

Van Dongen abandoned the symbolist style of his first beginnings (illustrations for the magazine De Vrije Kunst) for a realism with strong social connotations which climaxed in his drawings of the Boer War for the Dutch satirical magazine De Ware Jacob.

Van Dongen developed a real predilection for the picturesque quality of the red-light districts of Rotterdam, Antwerp, Amsterdam and Paris, with their brothels with red lanterns and the girls immobile in their windows. Drawing enabled him to capture scenes of exceptional realism without being seen. ‘I had rented a room in one of these houses. I drew my little what-nots by the light of the oil lamps,’ he wrote.

In Paris between 1900 and late 1903, he gave up painting, probably due to financial difficulties. Through the good offices of Théophile Steinlen he worked for the satirical papers of the day — L’Assiette au beurre, Le Rire, L’Indiscret, Le Frou-Frou. He illustrated an entire issue of L’Assiette au beurre (dated 26 October 1901) devoted to the subject of prostitution from the perspective of the conditions of the prostitutes.

Through the practice of drawing, Van Dongen affirmed his anarchist political beliefs while gradually moving towards expressive maturity.

From Tachisme to Fauvism 
Room 3

In 1904 Van Dongen organized his first one-man exhibition at the Galerie Ambroise Vollard, where he showed more than a hundred works, mostly paintings of Holland, Paris and the Normandy coast, a significant selection from which can be seen in the present exhibition.

Van Dongen walked in the same path as his contemporaries, the Impressionists and Claude Monet, but was quick to arrive at a personal language marked by a turbulence and tumult of colour and form very much in line with the Divisionism of Paul Signac and Van Dongen’s compatriot Otto van Rees. In embracing Tachisme, Van Dongen took the principle of the divided touch of colour to paroxysmal extremes; one critic spoke of his ‘juxtaposed touches of brush-wipe’. The merry-go-rounds of pigs series attests to this new and highly personal path, which gradually led the artist to Fauvism.

With two works at that notorious 1905 Salon d’Automne which the critic Louis Vauxcelles summed up in the famous phrase ‘Donatello chez les fauves’ ― Donatello among the wild beasts. Van Dongen was exhibiting more or less concurrently at Galerie Druet, showing canvases characterized by what the same critic described as ‘torrential orgies of colour’. This Tachiste period reached its peak with the monumental At the Galette: presented at the Salon des Indépendants in 1906, this masterwork conceived as a veritable manifesto that was to be Van Dongen’s defiant response to Henri Matisse. Alert to the demands of the market, the artist subsequently decided to divide up this vast work into six separate canvases, three of which are reunited in the present exhibition.

Le Bateau-Lavoir.With Picasso and Fernande
Room 4

In 1905 Van Dongen, his wife Guus and their daughter Dolly moved to an apartment in the Bateau-Lavoir, an unsanitary slum on the heights of Montmartre. His studio was next to Pablo Picasso’s, and the two artists became close friends. Picasso’s companion Fernande Olivier referred to the strong ties between the two artists and their respective entourages in her memoirs (Picasso and His Friends and In Love with Picasso).

When she moved into the Bateau-Lavoir with Picasso, Fernande had to stop working as a model for the painters of Montmartre, on account of her lover’s legendary jealousy. Whether as a result of his temporary break with Picasso from late August 1907 or from an acceptance of the Spanish artist’s way of working at home, the fact is that Van Dongen produced a series of portraits of Fernande in a wide range of styles, and she established herself as his preferred model, alongside his wife Guus. The artist draws forth from Fernande Olivier by extrapolation a variety of female types, from the frail and delicate Spanish courtesan to the woman of the night befuddled by absinthe, and intensifies a sensuality that is never denied.

He experimented with this art of the portrait of which he became such a master, with tight framing and novel angles, in pictures that are a subtle blend of painterly Expressionism and the photographic snapshot.

The ‘Fauve’ Years
Room 5

Van Dongen’s language was moving towards a form of Expressionism. The scenes of collective revelry at the Moulin de la Galette and the dance of the Mattchiche slowly but surely give way to portraits. Van Dongen started off by painting models he had ‘at hand’: Guus, Dolly and Fernande.

In the Bateau-Lavoir in 1907 he was a witness to the genesis of the Demoiselles d’Avignon, that seminal work of the Cubist Picasso. Van Dongen stayed on the sidelines of this formal revolution, and justified his decision in the following terms: ‘…an art that was only of science would be a suicide.’

His painting was turning increasingly to women, and expressing an eroticism that was out of step with the time, and provoking a somewhat prudish reaction from the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who deplored ‘the painter of urban shame’. Élie Faure wrote of the heat generated by these bodies and a bestiality which gradually conquered the mind, and Van Dongen retorted that shamelessness was a virtue. In this context of a radical and unprecedented overthrow of the compositional rules that had governed Western painting since the Renaissance, Van Dongen affirmed his own aesthetic stance with The wrestlers or Tabarin Wrestlers, in which the reappraisal of the picture space serves instead to make visible the flesh, desire, femininity and the ambivalence of sexual desire.

In 1908 he exhibited at the new gallery opened by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, thanks to whom he was able to present his works in Germany and meet the German Expressionist painters of Die Brücke.

Room 6

In the winter of 1910-1911, Van Dongen travelled to Spain. This was his first contact with Moorish architecture, with its palaces and the minaretted mosques, the contrast of dark passages and dazzling white walls baked by a scorching sun. But above all Van Dongen was attracted by the look of the Andalusian people, the movement of the bodies of the flamenco dancers to the wild rhythms of their tambourines, the colours of the flower-embroidered Manila shawls that give his painting Matisse-like accents in places.

His exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim Jeune in June 1911 under the title ‘Hollande, Paris, Espagne, Maroc’ established the reputation of the works influenced by his travels in southern lands.

‘European or exotic as he chooses, Van Dongen has a personal and violent sense of Orientalism. […] This painting smells of opium and amber,’ Apollinaire wrote in 1913. That year Van Dongen visited Egypt and went up the Nile to Thebes, where he posed for the camera in the midst of the ruins. This contact with the Egypt of the Pharaohs marks a real turning point in his work, which now goes beyond the Orient as the source of its themes and colours. The artist redefines the function of the drawing in a purified art: a sure, precise line that is reminiscent at times of his early caricatures, and a chromatic language based on large expanses of flat colour or monochrome.

In 1913, Van Dongen seems to have sought to conclude this cycle with a very provocative large composition; the blatantly exhibitionist nature of Spanish Shawl caused a scandal and the picture was removed from the wall at that year’s Salon d’Automne by the police.

The ‘Années Folles’
Room 7

‘The world is a big garden full of flowers, full of weeds. […] The lovely thing our time is that we can mix everything, blend everything: this really is the cocktail age,’ Van Dongen wrote.

In 1912 the artist took a studio in rue Denfert-Rochereau, where he held the first of his famous ‘Van Dongen Balls’. Self-portrait as Neptune attests to this new and short-lived incarnation as a socialite. He met the couturier Paul Poiret, who became one of his patrons. With his depictions of increasingly elongated female forms, Van Dongen became ‘the painter’ of the boyish women of the years between the two World Wars; women whose liberation from the old constraints of marriage allowed them to take a new place in society.

The artist’s acquaintance with the whimsical doyenne of fashionable Paris in the ‘Années Folles’, the Marquise Luisa Casati, shown from the back in his painting Urn with flowers, and with Jasmy Jacob, who became his companion from 1917, gave Van Dongen an entrée to the most select circles in Paris. He moved to Villa Saïd, on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, and then in 1922 to a luxurious mansion on rue Juliette Lamber, converted into a showroom devoted to his painting. The rebel from the Butte Montmartre had become a sort of Great Gatsby. Animated as always by a spirit of provocation, Van Dongen said that he loved ‘all that glitters, precious stones that sparkle, shimmering fabrics, beautiful women who inspire carnal desire… and painting gives me the most complete possession of all this, because what I paint is often the haunting realization of a dream or a nightmare…’ By contrast, Édouard Courrières, the author of the first monograph study of Van Dongen, published in 1925, detects a certain distancing on the part of the artist, which makes him a moralist or a history painter.