" I passionately love the life of my times […] Yes, I love everything that shines, sparkling jewels, […] 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 an obsession.” Van Dongen’s words seem to directly echo the present painting, emblematic of the works made by the painter in the 1920s, a decade qualified as the “Cocktail Epoch” by commentators of the time.
The painter was then at the height of his fame and had become one of the essential figures of fashionable Paris. He was living in a mansion on the rue Juliette-Kamber where he organized many parties to which all of Paris was invited. Fashionable women in evening dresses rubbed shoulders with cabaret dancers, erotic actresses and politicians. This colourful group was described by Van Dongen in the following terms: “The world is a great garden, full of flowers, full of weeds. The advantage of our time is that we can mix and mingle everything: it is the Cocktail Epoch”.
Many accounts of the sumptuous parties at rue Juliette-Lamber have come down to us. The newspaper Ecouter recounts a party on November 24 1928: “At midnight, five hundred people filled all the floors of the Van Dongen mansion, in the peaceful Juliette-Lamber street. Women in furs and pearls, men in smoking jackets, Montparnassian residents in jackets with their girlfriends in tight-fitting jumpers.” Michel Georges-Michel describes the same effervescent atmosphere: “A Veronese vision, two, three studios overlooking each other, separated by bannisters, by small balconies, almost terraces. And in each studio, silver divans wide as lawns where, during the parties of the most wonderful years, beautiful women from Paris, Europe and America would pile. From Boni de Castellane in her latest splendour to the Maharajah of Karputhala, from all the Goulds and all the Rothschilds to their latest models, there was all the cream of the world’s society, contemplating their portraits hanging on the walls like hanging effigies.”
Portrait de femme assise perfectly embodies this period of fashionable effervescence. The young elegant woman – probably Madame Dubonnet – is depicted here in a monumental format, in evening dress and enveloped in a sumptuous fur coat. As in his most famous works, the painter skillfully uses the electric lighting to sculpt the body and face of the female model, evocative of theatre lighting. The present painting demonstrates the painter’s remarkable mastery of colour and material effects. The fauve colours of his beginnings have here given way to a more measured palette but the spontaneous brushwork and the originality of the green carnations are radically modern, testifying to the artist’s continual innovation.