Kees van Dongen, his life, his family and his art

Portrait of Guus Preitinger by Kees van Dongen (1910)
Portrait of Guus Preitinger by Kees van Dongen (1910)

Last Thursday I embarked on my monthly pilgrimage to London to visit a couple of art galleries and take a look at two new art exhibitions and it was during those visits that I found a few paintings which I will include in my forthcoming blogs.  Two of my featured paintings today were not in a specific exhibition but were in the permanent collection of The Courtauld Gallery, which is a veritable gem when it comes to medium sized galleries and one you should put on your “to visit” list the next time you are in the capital.  Today I am highlighting some works by the Fauvist Kees van Dongen, which feature his wife and daughter.

Cornelis Theodorus Marie van Dongen, better known as Kees van Dongen, was born in January 1877 at Delfshaven, which is now a suburb of Rotterdam.    At the end of 1892, he enrolled as a student on a five-year course at the Akademie voor Beeldende Kunsten (Academy of Visual Arts) in Rotterdam, now known as the Willem de Kooning Academy, named in memory of the famous Dutch artist Willem de Kooning.    As a student he also needed to earn some money and so he carried out some illustrative work for the local newspaper, Rotterdamsche Nieuwsblad.  His own artistic work in these early days was greatly influenced by the Dutch artist, Rembrandt and many of his works displayed the dark tones of the great Dutch master.

It was whilst he was at this Academy that he became very friendly with another art student, Juliana Augusta “Guus” Preitinger.  Guus had been born in Cologne but early in her life the whole family had relocated to Rotterdam and eventually they all became Dutch citizens.  She revealed a great aptitude for drawing in her childhood years and her family supported and encouraged this artistic talent and had her enrol at the Academy.  On completion of their studies, Kees and Guus decided to move from The Netherlands and seek their fortune in the European capital of art, Paris.  Guus went off to Paris first in search of employment and Kees followed in 1899.   Shortly after arriving in Paris van Dongen met Félix Fénéon, the art critic and Parisian anarchist who had become a great supporter of a new group of French artists lead by Georges Seurat, whom he had christened, Neo-Impressionists.  Van Dongen and Fénénon became great and long lasting friends.

Between 1900 and late 1903, van Dongen did very little painting, probably due to financial difficulties. Through the good offices of Théophile Steinlen, a Swiss-born French Art Nouveau painter and printmaker, who worked for the satirical papers of the day,  L’Assiette au beurre, Le Rire, L’Indiscret and Le Frou-Frou , he managed to get some work for van Dongen on these periodicals and with the money van Dongen earned as an illustrator he managed to set up house with Guus Preitinger.

L'Assiette au Beurre magazine cover of 1902
L’Assiette au Beurre magazine cover of 1902

Van Dongen’s began to take an interest in the social and political affairs of Paris.  He especially took a great interest in the environment and lifestyle of the city’s prostitutes and courtesans.   He spent a lot of his time producing illustrations for political and social publications especially the journal L’Assiette au beurre, which was the most remarkable and resilient of cartoon journals of social protest in France during the first decade of the twentieth century.  It was a journal which looked at things such as the corruption of politicians and the country’s violence against the poor and the downtrodden.   Van Dongen illustrated an entire issue of L’Assiette au beurre (dated 26 October 1901) which was devoted to the subject of prostitution from the perspective of the conditions of the prostitutes and the tone of the edition indicated their belief that prostitution in contemporary Paris was a phenomenon symptomatic of the degeneration of the bourgeoisie.

In June 1901, Kees van Dongen and Guus Preitinger married.  Their first child, a son, was born that December but died when only two days old.    In 1904, Kees van Dongen was sponsored by Paul Signac and Maximilien Luce, to exhibit at the Salon des Indépendants and in that same year he had a major breakthrough with his art when he was granted gallery space at Ambroise Vollard’s establishment.  Vollard, one of the major art dealers in Paris, was a champion of avant-garde art and allowed van Dongen to show almost a hundred of his works, most of which were his early works depicting scenes from Holland, the Normandy coast and Paris.  The following year, van Dongen exhibited two of his works at the Salon des Indépendants, and at the infamous 1905 Salon d’Automne exhibition.  The Salon d’Automne was founded two years earlier by a group of artists and poets that included Renoir, Eugène Carrière, Georges Rouault and Édouard Vuillard, under the leadership of the Belgian architect, Frantz Jourdain.   They set up their Salon in direct competition to the conservatism of the official Paris Salon and the Salon des Independents and welcomed any artist who wished to join.   The decision on what would be allowed into their exhibition was, like the Paris Salon, to be decided by their own jury, which was selected by drawing straws from the new group’s membership, and it was their intention to give the decorative arts the same respect accorded the fine arts.   Their 1905 exhibition, which included the two works by van Dongen, was probably their best known for it was at this show that one of the visitors was the art critic Louis Vauxcelles, who on entering a room set aside for paintings by Matisse, Vlaminck, Albert Marquet, André Derrain and van Dongen, he commented on the “violence” of their works and their uninhibited use of pure non-naturalistic colours.   Seeing a traditional sculpture uncomfortably situated in this room amidst these hotly coloured paintings, Louis Vauxcelles joked to Matisse that it was like “a Donatello among the fauves [wild beasts]”. This group of painters was from that day on known as the Fauves and Fauvism as such was born.

In April 1905 Kees van Dongen and his wife Guus had a daughter whom they named Augusta but would always be known as Dolly.   The family moved to the Montmatre district which was a favourite haunt of the artistic community.   They moved into an apartment in the somewhat dark and squalid building on the heights of Montmatre, nicknamed Le Bateau Lavoir.  Pablo Picasso  and his companion Fernande Olivier had a studio next to theirs and the two artists became close friends.   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.    In the latter she recalled how Picasso loved Kees and Guus’ daughter Dolly.  She wrote:

“…Pablo loved little Gusie and played with her without getting bored, she could get him do whatever she wanted. I didn‘t know at the time that he could take so much pleasure in being with children. We would have liked to have a child, but as this wish was never realized, we had to be content with the little Van Dongen…”

Fernande Olivier by Kees van Dongen (1905)
Fernande Olivier by Kees van Dongen (1905)

It was whilst living here that Picasso painted his famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.   Many other artists moved into the apartment block and  it soon became a meeting place for all the contemporary artists of the time. Although the paintings by van Dongen continued to show the power and passion of Fauvism, by 1907 most of the other Fauvists had moved on and had begun to explore new styles.  Van Dongen produced a series of portraits of Picasso’s “lover” Fernande in a wide range of styles, and she established herself as his preferred model, alongside his wife Guus.   His painting at this time was turning increasingly to women, and the often erotic depictions were out of step with the time, and would often provoke a somewhat prudish reaction

Gypsy by Kees van Dongen (1911)
Gypsy by Kees van Dongen (1911)

In 1907 van Dongen had met the German Expressionist  Max Pechstein who was visiting the French capital.   Pechstein was one of the most prominent artists of German Expressionism. He was hailed by some of his contemporaries as the leading member of the Dresden-based Die Brücke group.  Their meeting led in 1908 to Van Dongen being invited to exhibit alongside the group.   His works went on to influence a number of its members.  In the winter of 1910-1911 van Dongen visited Spain and Morocco. This was his first time he had been able to observe, first-hand, Moorish architecture, with its palaces and the mosques with their fascinating minarets, the contrast of dark passages and dazzling white walls baked by a scorching sun. What fascinated Van Dongen was the look of the Andalusian people, the movement of the bodies of the flamenco dancers as they danced to the wild rhythms of their tambourines and the colours of the flower-embroidered Manila shawls.  After his travels, an exhibition of his works was held at the Galerie Bernheim Jeune in June 1911 under the title Hollande, Paris, Espagne, Maroc and this further established the reputation of the works which were influenced by his travels through the southern lands.

Tableau by Kees van Dongen (1913)
Tableau by Kees van Dongen (1913)

It was around this time van Dongen began to develop a reputation as a socialite.  He often hosted masquerade parties at his new home, which was an apartment in Montparnasse.  His lifestyle and his art was the talk of the Paris fashionista. His paintings now often depicted licentious nudes and other such erotic subjects, which often caused uproar among critics and admirers alike. One such painting was a nude portrait of his wife Guus which he completed in 1913 and was entitled Tableau (also known as The Beggar of Love or Nude with Manila Shawl).  The figure crouching on the floor to the right is of Kees who is admiring and bowing before the beauty of his wife.   He exhibited the work at the 1913  Salon d’Automne and the work was considered so scandalous and immoral that the police removed it from the gallery.  Van Dongen condemned its removal saying:

“…For all those who look with their ears, here is a completely naked woman. You are prudish, but I tell you that our sexes are organs that are as amusing as brains, and if the sex was found in the face, in place of the nose (which could have happened), where would prudishness be then? Shamelessness is really a virtue, like the lack of respect for many respectable things…” 

Portrait de Mme Jasmy by Kees van Dongen (1916)
Portrait de Mme Jasmy by Kees van Dongen (1916)

In 1914, Guus took her daughter Dolly to Rotterdam for the summer to see their families. However the outbreak of World War I prevented them from returning to Kees in Paris until 1918.   In 1917, Kees van Dongen, whilst living alone in Paris, started a relationship with a married socialite, the fashion director  Léa Alvin also known as Jasmy Jacob.   She proved to be the conduit between van Dongen and the upper classes and through her introductions, came numerous portraiture commissions.  When Guus and Dolly returned to Paris it was not long before Guus heard rumours about her husband’s infidelity.  This proved to be the final straw in the break-up of their marriage and they eventually divorced in 1921.   Guus Preitinger died in 1946.

In 1926 he was awarded the Legion of Honour and the following year the Order of the Crown of Belgium.  In 1929 van Dongen became a French citizen.  He and his art, were the toast of French society.  He cut an ostentatious and colourful figure in Paris. His lifestyle was full of controversy and his extravagant nightly studio parties were attended by film stars, masqued politicians and artists.   He spent most of his time completing portraiture commissions.   He was the typical society artist who lived a bohemian lifestyle and who brought added colour and excitement to the Parisian upper classes.  He was only too well aware how to please his female sitters, saying:

“…The essential thing is to elongate the women and especially to make them slim. After that it just remains to enlarge their jewels. They are ravished……….Painting is the most beautiful of lies…”

His success as a society portraitist enhanced his reputation as an artist with the French bourgeoisie, especially the society women, and his numerous commissions allowed him to live a carefree and affluent lifestyle.

In 1938 he met Marie-Claire Huguen, who two years later bore him a son, Jean Marie.  At that time van Dongen was 63 years old !!   The couple finally married in 1953, and this new second family gave van Dongen new purpose, a new life. He carried on working on his portraiture work which was much in demand and he also continued with his illustrative work for books by the likes of Voltaire, Proust and Kipling.  The latter years of his life was spent with his family in Monaco where he died at home in 1968 at the age of 91.

The Torso or The Idol by Kees van Dongen (1905)
The Torso or The Idol by Kees van Dongen (1905)

One of the paintings by Kees van Dongen, which  I saw at London’s Courtauld Gallery was entitled Torso, sometimes known as The Idol, which he completed in 1905 and was one of two portraits of his wife, Guus Preitinger,  which he exhibited at that year’s Salon d’Automne.    It is a large and somewhat “in your face” painting.  There is an overt sexuality about this work.  It is a depiction of complete sexual abandonment.   Guus lies back with her hands behind her head.  Her arms form two triangles of space either side of her head.  The curvature of her arms mirrors the curvature of her hips in the lower half of the work.   Prominently depicted in the very centre of the painting are her nipples.  It is if the artist wants them to have pride of place.  Van Dongen has used various shades of red and pink to depict the flushed cheeks of her face.  Could it be she was embarrassed by the artist, her husband’s, gaze as he painted her image?   Her pale body is set off dramatically against the heavy black and brown lines which he has used to outline her torso and her breasts.  The paleness contrasts with the dark background.  I found it a rather disturbing painting.  It did not have the beauty of many depictions of the female nude I have seen before.   There was something very rough, almost unpleasant about the full-frontal depiction and in some ways this diminished the sense of eroticism.  In my opinion, the female body in this painting has not been put on a pedestal for us to adore its beauty.  That is just my opinion and I am sure many of you will beg to differ.  However, when I stood in front of this work, it had the same affect on me as when I stood before many of Egon Schiele’s nude or semi nude portraits.

Portrait of Dolly by Kees van Dongen (c.1912)
Portrait of Dolly by Kees van Dongen (c.1912)

One of Kees van Dongen’s favourite models for his paintings was his daughter Dolly and she appears in many of his portraits.  In the one at the Courtauld Gallery she is probably just seven years old.  This a portrait of a child, his young daughter but by the way she is given an open pose, and the way he has given her red cheeks, painted lips and large eyes, there is something of an adult feel to the painting.

I came across a couple of fascinating videos on the internet, one of which was a sub-titled interview with van Dongen’s daughter Dolly, aged 82, made in 1987 in which she talks about her father and his paintings.  I am sure you will find it interesting.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

3 thoughts on “Kees van Dongen, his life, his family and his art”

  1. A wonderful underrated painter! Yes, his entertaining was distracting, and some of his later work is almost kitsch. But the best of his work, many of the portraits and some of the fauvre period landscapes, will live and be admired forever.

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