Van Dongen moved from Holland to Paris and in 1900 he settled in Montmartre, a neighborhood made famous by its artistic milieu. It was during this early but pivotal period that he painted several dramatic scenes of the night life he encountered there. Relatively unknown as an artist at the time, he struggled with finances and worked several odd jobs just to keep his family fed. However in 1904 van Dongen’s career took a turn for the better when Ambroise Vollard’s gallery included his work in an exhibition and subsequently contributed two pictures to the famous “salle des Fauves” at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, which publicly introduced the vanguard Fauve output of such masters as Derain, Vlaminck and Matisse. The success of the Salon led to van Dongen’s first solo exhibition at Galerie Druet and ultimately his representation by Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, the legendary gallery that exhibited some of the most successful artists of the twentieth century, including Bonnard, Matisse and Modigliani. At last van Dongen gained recognition for his artwork, and soon he became one of the most pursued portraitists of his time.
In the present work, the artist depicts a rainy night at the Place Pigalle at the base of Montmartre. He captures the energy of the lively scene, which brings focus upon a crowd of passersby beneath a bright theatre marquee that illuminates the composition. Positioned atop the image is the brilliant beacon of the famed Sacré-Cœur. The vibrant green, yellow and red highlights of the bustling Parisian scene offer a sharp contrast to the black night sky; indeed these pigments are characteristic of van Dongen’s bold approach to color that earned him the place at the forefront of the European avant-garde. According to Marcel Giry, “in fact, it can be said that [Bonnard & Matisse] were motivated by a desire to rearrange the perceptible world, adding their own lyrical note, and that their technique was the same in each case, consisting of the vigorous application of pure colors... Van Dongen, however, breaks down some of his colors under the influence of light in order to suggest the enveloping atmosphere” (Marcel Giry, Fauvism: Origins and Development, New York, 1981, p. 84).