Kees van Dongen
- Kees van Dongen
- Oil on canvas
- 76 3/4 by 51 3/8 in.
- 195 by 130 cm
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1968
Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne & Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans, Van Dongen, 1967-68, no. 101, illustrated in the catalogue
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Van Dongen, Le Peintre, 1877-1968, 1990, n.n, illustrated in color in the catalogue
Monaco, Nouveau Musée National; Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts & Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Kees van Dongen, 2008-09, no. 192, illustrated in color in the catalogue
The extraordinary palette of cobalt blues and brick reds used instead of conventional flesh-tones in the present work is a definitive element of van Dongen's early works. Van Dongen's penchant for a red-dominated palette is well-known, and the impact of the color is evident in Leila. Matisse had also recognized the expressive and lyrical potential of using red skin-tones for the figures in his Music and Dance compositions, and Van Dongen may have had these pictures in mind when he completed the present work around the same time. But as John Klein explained in a recent exhibition catalogue, Van Dongen's insistence on the color appealed to audiences otherwise unreceptive to avant-garde art: "In his portraits and female nudes from this long Fauve period, Van Dongen uses the colour red liberally and voluptuously, as a signifier of ardour, sex, and blood. Flooding the faces and bodies of Egyptians or Moroccans, it also signifies the exotic....When Matisse disingenuously placed all the weight of Fauvism on a single colour, it would not be surprising if he were making a covert reference to Van Dongen's reddish predilections. But by his extravagant deployment of red, Van Dongen was not vitiating its attention-getting effect — he was doing for Fauvism what Matisse and the others, too restless, and too devoted to the necessity of self-expression in their work, would not. He was ... mak[ing] Fauve style accessible...with an appeal beyond the narrow confines of the avant-garde" (quoted in J. Klein,“Van Dongen, Postmodern Fauve” in Van Dongen, 2008-09, p. 223). And surely this bold picture beckons the attention of those well beyond the reach of any individual artistic movement.
In addition to Matisse, van Dongen may have been influenced by the celebrated Florentine Renaissance painter, Giotto di Bondone. While there is no discernable setting for the figure in the present work, the stark cobalt blue background adorned with stars is reminiscent of the ceiling Giotto painted in the Cappella degli Scrovegni (also known as the Arena Chapel), a church in Padua Veneto, Italy. Arguably one of the most important masterpieces of Western art, Giotto adorned the interior of this building with floor to ceiling frescos with an illustrated history of the Virgin Mary. Giotto painted the ceiling a magnificent blue as if to emulate the sky, and adorned it with gold-leaf stars. Van Dongen here invokes this art historical wonder as a backdrop for his startlingly modern portrait.