Lot 50
  • 50

Kees van Dongen

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  • Kees van Dongen
  • L’Equilibriste
  • Signed Van Dongen (lower right); signed van Dongen and titled au cirque on the reverse

  • Oil on canvas

  • 51 ¼ by 38 1/8 in.
  • 130 by 97 cm


Estate of the artist

Private Collection, Monaco (acquired from the above in the 1980s)

Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above)


Baltimore Museum of Art and Saint Louis, City Art Museum, Kees Van Dongen, 1932

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Olympic competition and exhibition of art, Xth Olympiad, 1932, no. 30

Albi, Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Kees Van Dongen, 1960, no. 19 (titled Acrobate)


Louis Chaumeil, Van Dongen, L’homme et l’artiste – La vie et l’œuvre, Geneva, 1967, no. 85, illustrated

Catalogue Note

A bold and powerful depiction of a performing acrobat, L’Equilibriste was probably inspired by Van Dongen’s visits to the circus and reflects his fascination with the human body. In December 1905, Van Dongen, with his wife Guus and their young daughter Dolly, moved to a studio in the Bateau-Lavoir, a building in Montmartre where Picasso, Herbin, Gris and other artists lived and worked (see fig 1). Van Dongen’s studio was directly opposite that occupied by Picasso and his companion and muse Fernande Olivier, and over this period the two families became close. Together with Picasso, Van Dongen frequented the cafés and cabarets in the area, seeking out models for his paintings, and became one of the leading figures in bohemian circles. He also often visited the Cirque Médrano, where he always went with his sketchbook, making quick drawings of the acrobats, clowns and horseriders that he would later use for his oil paintings.


Founded in the mid-nineteenth century by the bareback rider Ferdinand Beert, known as Fernando, the Cirque Fernando was originally a travelling circus, until 1873 when it settled at the top of the rue des Martyrs.  Previously known under the name Cirque Fernando, it was immortalized by artists including Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat and Degas (see fig. 2). Its success was based on a varied programme which consisted of acrobats, riders and the popular clown Médrano. After a temporary closure in 1897, the circus was taken over by Médrano, who gave it his name and whose family ran it until 1943. After that, the circus was run under the name the Cirque de Montmartre, until it finally closed in 1963.


The period when L’Equilibriste was executed marks Van Dongen’s transformation from a draughtsman to an avant-garde painter, with a shift of focus and technique from a linear approach to the thick painterly treatment of form. As in the present work, paint is applied in thick brushstrokes and color assumes an expressive and highly-charged quality. While choosing the subject of the human body, Van Dongen’s primary focus was on the vibrancy of his palette and the directness of his expression rather than on the anatomical accuracy. In focusing on the figure of the performer, balancing herself on her right arm, with her left arm and her legs up in the air, Van Dongen eliminated references to the circus as a public spectacle. His works of this period reflect the artist’s interest in movement, observed both in circus performers and exotic cabaret dancers. His subjects are elegant, sensuous and seductive, and in L’Equilibriste, the attempt to convey the lightness of the woman’s body, acquires a certain mannerist, almost abstract quality. The pronounced color contrasts convey the dramatic atmosphere of the stage performance.


L’Equilibriste was painted during the pivotal period of Van Dongen’s career, when he became associated with the Fauve painters with whom he first participated in the 1905 Salon d’Automne. It was during that exhibition that the term ‘Les Fauves’ was coined, at the sight of the vivid colors and free forms of Matisse and his associates. Van Dongen also exhibited with the Fauve group at Prath & Magnier in Paris in December of the same year and was mentioned alongside other artists in the Chronique des Arts: "At Prath & Magniers there is a gathering of avant-garde painters, the masters of the intense touch and forthright colour, the champions of the Salon d’Automne" (quoted in Anita Hopmans, The Van Dongen Nobody Knows, Early and Fauvist Drawings 1895-1912, Rotterdam, 1996, p. 67). In the present work, the vibrant red and green highlights of the woman’s hair and body, in sharp contrast with the deep blue of the background, are characteristic of Van Dongen’s bold approach to color that earned him the place at the forefront of the European avant-garde in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Fig. 1, Kees, Guus, Dolly and Jean van Dongen at the Bateau-Lavoir, 1906.

Fig. 2, Edgar Degas, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London 

Fig. 3, Kees van Dongen, L’Acrobate, 1906, oil on canvas