Lot 18
  • 18

KEES VAN DONGEN | La Lecture ou Rabelais

1,500,000 - 2,500,000 EUR
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  • Kees van Dongen
  • La Lecture ou Rabelais
  • signed Van Dongen (lower centre); signed Van Dongen, titled La lecture and inscribed Panneau décoratif Rabelais 5 rue Juliette Lamber Paris (on the reverse)
  • oil on canvas
  • 146,3 x 145,3 cm; 57 5/8 x 57 1/4 in.
  • Painted circa 1912 in Paris.


Augusta 'Dolly' van Dongen, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 1990


Paris, galerie Bernheim-Jeune, van Dongen, 1913, no. 23 (titled Rabelais)
Paris, Galerie Devambez, Van Dongen, 1918, no. 44 (titled La Lecture) probably 
Paris, galerie Charpentier, van Dongen cinquante ans de peinture, 1942, no. 32 (incorrectly dated 1906)
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne & Rotterdam, Musée Boymans-van Beuningen, van Dongen, 1967-68, no. 70, illustrated in the catalogue np
Tuscon, The University of Arizona Museum of Art, Cornelis Theodorus Marie van Dongen 1877-1968, 1971, no. 71, illustrated in the catalogue p. 90 and illustrated in situ p. 165
Paris, Grand Palais, Société des artistes indépendants, catalogue de la 84e exposition, 1973, no. 80, illustrated in the catalogue np
Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André, Poiret le magnifique, 1974, no. 101, p. 33
Montrouge, 21e édition du salon de Montrouge, 1976, no. 15
Geneva, Musée de l'Athénée, van Dongen 1877-1968, 1976, no. 37, illustrated in the catalogue
Tokyo, Nihonbashi Gallery, Apollinaire et ses amis peintres, 1980, no. 104, illustrated in the catalogue
Paris, Grand Palais, Salon d'automne 1980. Centenaire de Guillaume Apollinaire, 1980, no. 152, illustrated in the catalogue
Saint-Tropez, Musée de l'Annonciade & Toulouse, Réfectoire des Jacobins, Kees Van Dongen 1877–1968, 1985, no. 35, illustrated in the catalogue
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, van Dongen, le Peintre 1877-1968, 1990, illustrated in the catalogue p. 167


Jean Melas Kyriazi, van Dongen après le fauvisme, Lausanne, 1976, illustrated in situ p. 34
Elisabeth Foucart-Walter & Pierre Rosenberg, Le chat et la palette, le chat dans la peinture occidentale du XVe au XXe siècle, Paris, 1987, illustrated p. 211
Jean-Michel Bouhours & Nathalie Blondil, van Dongen (exhibition catalogue), Paris, 2008, illustrated in situ ill. 67 p. 258
Anita Hopmans, van Dongen: fauve, anarchiste et mondain (exhibition catalogue), Paris, 2011, illustrated p. 118 & illustrated in situ p. 227


Please contact the Impressionist and Modern Art Department for the condition report for this lot.
"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. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Kees van Dongen painted this monumental portrait in 1911, depicting his wife Augusta, known as "Guus", reading a book by Rabelais. The painter, who had a contract with the Bernheim-Jeune gallery since 1908, had met with great public success thanks to an exhibition dedicated to his work at the gallery in June 1911. The present painting is part of the new aesthetic that he developed  during this key period and marks an essential turning point in his career as a painter.
Van Dongen had just returned from a trip to Spain and then Morocco that would profoundly transform his way of painting. The artist returned with an expanded yet more subdued palette, and especially a new way of treating light. The vigorous layers of colours of his Fauve paintings gave way to works with more shimmering hues and smoother surfaces. A transitional work par excellence, La Lecture shows an undeniable relation to Matisse’s art.  If the two men frequented each other since   exhibiting together in the now famous room reserved for the "Fauves" during the decried  Salon d’Automne of 1905, their approach to painting was radically different until then, the classicism of Matissian art contrasting with the provocative crudeness of the Dutch painter. It was after this trip to Morocco, quickly followed by a trip to Egypt, that Van Dongen moved closer to the art of his elder with the fauve fever of the early years giving way to a more serene, more luminous art.

Like Matisse, Van Dongen also brought back from his travels many decorative objects, fabrics and props, which would appear in his subsequent works. The flowery pattern of the cushion on the right of the composition demonstrates this, the material echoes Moroccan hangings, or the necklace with the hand of Fatima hanging around Guus’s neck, a souvenir from his travels brought back as a lucky charm.

The young Guus is depicted wearing an outfit by the famous fashion designer Paul Poiret: the striped blouse with tassels, the open yellow skirt revealing red stockings and shoes are characteristic of Poiret’s creations in the years 1910-11 as shown in  fashion magazine photographs of the time. In fact, the painter and his wife became close friends with Paul Poiret and his wife Denise the year that this painting created.  On June 24th 1911, the last day of his exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, Kees and Guus van Dongen took part in a sumptuous party,  the "Thousand and two nights", organized by the Poirets in the garden of their mansion on the avenue d’Antin. Similarly, the Poirets were regularly invited to the parties organized by Van Dongen in his studio on the rue Denfert-Rochereau.

Poiret and Van Dongen shared the same taste for oriental fabrics and precious ornaments. Paul Poiret was then the fashion designer of European high society but also a great collector of modern art: works by Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso and Brancusi decorated the walls of his house. Works by Van Dongen quickly joined them, such as Colombes or Quiétude, one of Poiret’s favourite paintings which decorated his bedroom from 1920.

Poiret was also passionate about interior decoration, as evidence by the boutique "Martine"  he created in 1911, and where Fernand Olivier, Pablo Picasso’s ex-companion and Van Dongen’s model, worked as an assistant. At this time Paul Poiret also launched the fashion of oriental décor: cushions and poufs replaced chairs whilst walls and floors were covered in rugs and fabrics decorated with North African motifs. Kees and Guus van Dongen immediately adopted this novel décor in their apartment on the rue Saulnier, as seen in the period photographs and the present painting which plunge us into the couple’s intimacy.

La Lecture remained in the painter’s family until 1990. Painted in 1911 in the studio of the rue Saulnier, it followed the painter to the rue Denfert-Rochereau and then to the Villa Saïd where in 1917  it was hung in the entrance hall. Painted almost entirely in 1911, it was after its installation at the Villa Saïd, between 1917 and 1920, that Van Dongen finished the last details of the composition by adding a few decorative details (the tablecloth’s fringes, waves on the painting in the background, and a chignon to Guus).

A work at the crossroads of multiple influences, La Lecture resonates perfectly with avant-garde practice at the beginning of the 20th century: the painting summarizes the Fauve and Cubist revolutions while also integrating the influences of oriental art (North-African but also Asian as revealed by the stylization of certain lines). It testifies especially to Van Dongen’s extraordinary talent as a painter of colour and light. As Marius-Ary Leblond described in 1908, "the artist molds the substance of flesh with greens where daylight is silvered, tea roses marbled with yellow, chalky whites mottled with lilac, azures tainted with the sun. Animated in their synthetic sketch by these colours that spread out in fluorescent undulations, the faces flushed purple and green […], mouths flowering in an envelopment of light and flesh, to create the sensation of mystery in full daylight" (Foreword of the exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in 1908). Van Dongen himself, in a text he wrote the same year he painted La Lecture, gave clues for the reading of the meaning behind his chromatic palette of this masterful painting: "Green which is optimism that heals, blue which is light and rest, royal yellow, a few colours of forgetting and all the colours of life." (in, "L’Avant-propos capricieux", December 4, 1911).

Please note that this work will be included in the forthcoming van Dongen Digital Catalogue Raisonné, being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc.