Impressionist & Modern Art

Painting the Ladies of the Cocktail Generation

By Martin Dean

The Art Impressionniste et Moderne sale in Paris on 23 March will feature a selection of works by celebrated Dutch artist Kees Van Dongen, whose paintings of women in 1920s Paris are regarded as truly emblematic of a culturally rich and exciting period in the city’s history.

KEES VAN DONGEN, LES AMIES. ESTIMATE: €1,200,000–1,800,000.

Dutch artist Kees Van Dongen moved to Paris at the height of what would later be known as the Belle Époque. In these carefree days before the First World War, he began to establish himself as a painter, his works appearing alongside those of Henri Matisse, André Derain, Albert Marquet, Maurice de Vlaminck, Charles Camoin, and Jean Puy at the Salon d'Automne exhibition in 1905. It was at this exhibition that the term Les Fauves was coined, to describe the featured painters' wild departure from artistic conventions. Van Dongen was considered part of the short-lived movement that emerged from it — Fauvism.


Soon after, Van Dongen became friends with Pablo Picasso, living in neighbouring rooms with him in the Bateau Lavoir, an old building in Montmartre which would house many of the 20th century’s greatest artists and writers. He painted portraits of the young society women he met, notably Picasso’s tempestuous lover, Fernande Olivier. It was at this point, according to writer and patron of the arts Gertrude Stein, that he “broke into notoriety.” His denial that the woman depicted was Fernande, who had told the ferociously jealous Picasso she would no longer model for other artists, “caused much bitterness”, Stein reports.

A poor and struggling artist, Van Dongen was seduced by the glamour of Paris in more ways than one. Stein tells us that “Van Dongen in these days was poor, he had a Dutch wife who was a vegetarian and they lived on spinach. Van Dongen frequently escaped from the spinach to a joint in Montmartre where the girls paid for his dinner and his drinks."


By the 1920s, Van Dongen was an established and celebrated painter. He had divorced his wife in 1921 and taken up residence with fashion director Jasmy Jacob, beginning in earnest his involvement with the hedonistic indulgence of Paris in his personal and creative life. He became sought after by society women for his indulgent, and by his own account, deliberately flattering, portraits. “The essential thing is to elongate the women and especially to make them slim.” he observed. “After that it just remains to enlarge their jewels. They are ravished.” 


Paris in the 1920s was a vibrant and exciting place to be. Dubbed the années folles, or ‘crazy years’, the city bore witness to a giddy and hedonistic culture in which the arts thrived, and the young men and women who indulged in this culture became known as 'the cocktail generation'. The exuberance and creativity was driven in part by widespread joy at the end of the First World War, and an economic boom which made rents extremely affordable. Many of the most renowned names across all artistic modes were drawn to Paris in this period to be part of the burgeoning scene, from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Salvador Dali among many others.

Van Dongen was enchanted with the giddy thrill of the city, stating: “I passionately love the life of my own time, so animated, so frenzied. [...] Yes, I love things that shine, precious stones that sparkle, fabric that shimmers, beautiful women that inspire carnal desire... and painting gives me complete possession of all of that, for what I paint is often the obsessive realisation of a dream or a fixation." His painting Les Amies, strongly embodies this idea of feminine beauty.


When Van Dongen moved into a private mansion in Rue Juliette-Lamber in 1922, he held endless parties, eagerly attended by the glitterati of Paris high society. It was during this period that Van Dongen would paint some of his most important works, which captured and embodied the carefree energy and gaiety of that brief period in Paris’ history before the onset of the Second World War. Portrait de femme assise evokes this effervescence and frivolity. The elegant young woman – probably Madame Dubonnet – is depicted here in a monumental format, in evening dress and enveloped in a sumptuous fur coat. Characteristic of Van Dongen was his preference for electric light over natural light, which he uses here to sculpt the body and face of the female model and evoke the high contrast of theatre lighting.

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