Lot 17
  • 17

Kees van Dongen

4,000,000 - 6,000,000 USD
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  • Kees van Dongen
  • L'Équilibriste
  • Signed van Dongen. (lower right); signed van Dongen and titled on the reverse
  • Oil on canvas
  • 51 1/4 by 38 1/8 in.
  • 130 by 97 cm


Estate of the artist

Private Collection, Monaco (acquired from the above by the 1960s)

Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above)

Sale: Sotheby's, New York, November 7, 2006, lot 50

Acquired at the above sale


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

Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Olympic Competition and Exhibition of Art, Xth Olympiad, 1932, no. 301 (titled Balancing)

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

Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne & Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, 1967-68, no. 31 (titled Acrobate)

Marseille, Musée Cantini, Hommage à Van Dongen, 1969, no. 21 (titled L'acrobate ou Au Cirque)

Nice, Musée de Beaux-Arts Jules Chéret, Hommage à Kees Van Dongen, 1977, no. 3

Tokyo, Galerie de Isetan, Shinjuku, Exposition de Van Dongen, 1978, no. 12, illustrated in color in the catalogue


Louis Chaumeil, Van Dongen, L'homme et l'artiste - La vie et l'oeuvre, Geneva, 1967, illustrated pl. 85


Original canvas. Under UV light, several small scattered spots of inpainting are visible along the left edge of the painting, towards the center right edge, and along the bottom edge to address former frame abrasions. As well, there is one 1-inch sized spot of inpainting at the top center edge, one spot five inches to the right of the acrobats right hand, a one inch line of inpainting below the letter "N" in the signature extending to the extreme lower edge, and small scattered spots of inpainting in the hair. However, the red, brown, and green pigments that fluoresce are original pigments. A horizontal stretcher mark in the middle of the painting extends the length of the composition. There is faint craquelure throughout. On the right side above and to the right of the figure's leg, heavy application of the paint has created slight waving of the canvas. Otherwise, the painting is in good condition.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Painted at the height of Van Dongen's Fauve period, L'Équilibriste is a powerful depiction of a performing acrobat. Van Dongen became associated with the Fauve painters when he first participated in the 1905 Salon d'Automne. While his Fauve contemporaries often depicted landscape motifs in natural light, van Dongen took to the striking effects of electric light in the performance spaces which made up the demi-monde of Paris. As John Elderfield has noted, "By 1905 he had found his way into a loose impromptu style analogous to the mixed-technique Fauvism of the Matisse circle, especially in his paintings of nudes. But the main direction of his art was fast becoming geared to the representation of subjects different from those of the other Fauves" (J. Elderfield, The "Wild Beasts": Fauvism and Its Affinities, New York, 1976, p. 66).

The present work exemplifies van Dongen's highly individualized artistic focus inspired by his visits to the circus. In December of 1905, van Dongen moved with his wife Guus and young daughter Dolly to a studio in the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre, a building where Picasso, Gris, Herbin, and other artists lived and worked. Directly opposite van Dongen's studio was that of Picasso and his companion and muse Fernande Olivier. Together with Picasso, van Dongen frequented cafés and cabarets in the area and sought out models for his paintings (fig. 2). Van Dongen often visited the Cirque Médrano (fig. 3), where he would always take his sketchbook, making quick drawings of the acrobats and clowns he would later use for his oils.

Previously known as the Cirque Fernando, the venue was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by the bareback horse rider Ferdinand Beert as a traveling circus. After settling at the top of the rue des Martyrs, it became immortalized by artists including Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Renoir and Seurat. Among the highlights of its program were acrobats, riders, and the popular clown Médrano. He took over the show after a brief closure in 1879, and gave it its name until 1943. Thereafter the circus ran under the name Cirque Montmartre, until it closed in 1963.

L'Équilibriste celebrates van Dongen's fascination with the human body and the allure of the female figure within the dramatic atmosphere of stage performance. While choosing the subject of the human body, van Dongen's primary focus was on the vibrancy of palette and directness of expression rather than anatomical accuracy. The acrobat in the present work is depicted with striking curvature and bold contrast of black and white hues, highlighted by the brilliant spotlight emanating from behind her. Van Dongen's rich shadows are enhanced by the diagonal line slicing down the left side of the image to the performer's balancing hand. By focusing on the shape of the performer as she balances on one arm and arches her legs above her, van Dongen removes other references of the circus and illustrates his interest in movement in an almost abstract form.

The present work marks the period of van Dongen's artistic transformation from a draughtsman to an avant-garde painter and his association with the Fauves. His thick painterly treatment of form illustrates the artist's departure from a more linear technique. Complementing her elegant pose and framing her figure, van Dongen's highlights of red and green color on the woman's hair and body and the pulsating effect of his brushstrokes capture the dynamism of this aesthetic spectacle. Mentioned alongside other artists in the Chronique des Arts, van Dongen was known as one of "a gathering of avant-garde painters, the masters of intense touch and forthright color, the champions of the Salon d'Automne" (quoted in Anita Hopmans, The Van Dongen Nobody Knows, Early Fauvist Drawings 1895-1912, Rotterdam, 1996, p. 67). The present work is characteristic of the bold approach to color which earned van Dongen a place at the forefront of the European avant-garde in the first decade of the twentieth century.