In 1905—the same year as the renowned Salon d’Automne in which a group of avant-garde painters including Van Dongen gained notoriety as the Fauves—the artist welcomed his daughter Augusta into the world. Van Dongen and his wife had sadly lost a son a few days after birth in 1901, and the arrival of their daughter was both a poignant and joyous occasion: she and the artist would form a strong friendship that would impact his life and work from them on. Affectionately calling him Keesie, Augusta too was known fondly by the artist only as Dolly.
Dolly quickly became a model for her father’s work. Though impatient, and never wanting to pose for long, she provided the artist with endless source material. She liked to dress up and is often depicted in her mother’s hats, jewelry and shoes. In the present work, she is dressed in a sailor’s outfit. Dolly recalls posing for the portrait and becoming tired after five minutes, instructing her father to "do the background." She also recalls how she playfully would charge her father for her modelling services—and increased her prices after World War I. Her strong individual character is an important element in the artist’s portraits of her. Staring resolutely outward in the present work, Dolly stands confidently with no indication of self-consciousness: her young dignity and intelligent maturity clearly visible. Fernande Olivier recalls her specific individuality and charm: “Their little girl who must be about two, calls Picasso ‘Tablo’ and spends her days with us. I’ve made her a little rag doll which is now her favorite toy, and she arrives after breakfast clutching this in one hand and an enamel bowl in the other. She knocks on the door with her bowl, shouting ‘Tablo! Fernande!’ and takes possession of the studio, and of us, too. Pablo is very fond of little ‘Gussie’ and never tires of playing with her; she can get him to do whatever she wants. I’d never thought he’d enjoy himself so much with a child” (quoted in Christine Baker & Michael Raeburn, eds., Loving Picasso: The Private Journal of Fernande Olivier, New York, 2001, p. 174).
Van Dongen’s portraits of his beloved daughter elicited a perceptibly soft side to an artist more immediately known for his erotic society portraits and night scenes. The present work is rendered in soft tones—a restrained palette to complement his subject’s innocent charm. Originally in the personal collection of Dolly herself, Dolly en costume marin is a wonderful testament to the quiet intensity of a father’s love.
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