Kees van Dongen
Biography of Dutch Fauvist, Expressionist Painter.

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For biographies of artists involved
in these modern art movements,
see: Fauvist Painters (1905-7),
and Expressionist Painters.

Paintings by Kees van Dongen
are also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

Kees van Dongen (1877-1968)

One of the great exponents of expressionism, the Dutch painter, Kees van Dongen achieved fame both as a member of the Fauvism movement and the German Expressionist group Die Brucke. He is best known for his paintings of women, nudes, dancers and society portraits. He trained in Holland at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rotterdam, and his first works were mostly Impressionist in style. In 1897 he moved to Paris, where he came under the influence of Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901), and Art Nouveau painter and printmaker Theophile-Alexandre Steinlein (1859-1923). He was also a Bateau-Lavoir neighbour of the younger Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). In 1905 he joined the Fauvism movement and in 1908, Die Brucke, with whom he produced most of his greatest expressionist paintings. Best known for his sensuous female portraits, in particular those with a restricted palette such as his Woman in a Black Hat (1908, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg), he famously described the female body as "the most beautiful landscape". After the First World War he built up a successful career as a society portraitist of great sophistication, focusing on provocatively glamorous women whose stereotype was famous described as "half drawing-room prostitute, half side-walk princess". However, few of these later paintings achieved the impact of his pre-1918 works. For more about the contribution of Kees van Dongen to the style of expressionism, see: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).


Woman in a Black Hat (1908)
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
For other Fauvist works similar to
those produced by van Dongen, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Le Coquelicot (The Corn Poppy)
(1919) Toulouse-Lautrec Museum,
Albi. One of the iconic works of
the expressionist movement.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.

For a discussion of the main
aesthetic issues concerning
the creative visual arts, see:
Art Definition, Meaning

For a list of painters like
Kees Van Dongen, see:
Modern Artists.

Early Life

Kees van Dongen was born at Delfshaven near Rotterdam in 1877; his full name was Cornelis Theodorus Maria van Dongen. Between 1892 and 1897 he studied in the evenings at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rotterdam, and spent much of his spare time at the docks, sketching sailors and prostitutes. He earned his living by day, illustrating for satirical journals including Groene and Rotterdam Neusblad. His spicy drawings of life at the harbour caused some scandal. In 1897 he visited Paris where he spent much of the remainder of his life, settling there in 1899. Modelling his drawing technique on Toulouse Lautrec and Steinlein (the creator of the fabulous lithograph poster of the Chat Noir), Van Dongen's first paintings were impressionist, almost clumsy in style. In 1903 he showed his works in public for the first time, and in 1904 he had his first one-man exhibition at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939). By 1905, his painting had become increasingly bold and colourful, and he was among those who participated in the famous exhibition of colourist works at the Salon d'Automne, which led to the formation of the Fauvist movement. In 1907, he signed a lucrative agreement with the Parisian Kahnweiler Gallery, owned by the German-born art dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler (1884-1979).



Les Fauves

Derived from the French word for Wild Beasts, Fauvism was a short-lived colourist art movement, centred on Paris, which lasted from 1905 to 1907. The leaders of the movement were Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Andre Derain (1880-1954). Other artists who were involved in the Fauvist group included Georges Rouault (1871-1958), Henri Charles Manguin (1874-1949), Albert Marquet (1875-1947), Jean Puy (1876-1960), Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), Charles Camoin (1879-1964) and Georges Braque (1882-1963). A loose knit group; they preferred strong colour in painting to naturalistic representation, taking Neo-impressionism to another level. An art critic described their paintings as an "orgy of pure colours". He meant pure, for their own sake, rather than for descriptive purposes; and orgy, implying the artists were out of control. Fauvism was the French precursor to Expressionism, and its subject matter ranged from landscapes, to portraits and the mythological. The group was short-lived, and after 1907 the revolutionary implications of Cubism, denied them their place as the most radical trend in French art.


Of all the artists associated with the Fauves, van Dongen stood apart. Firstly, the main proponents were French, and - although classified as a member of the Ecole de Paris - he was Dutch. Where the others mainly painted landscapes in natural light, van Dongen preferred interior scenes - theatres, circuses, cabarets - where electric light could offer more intense contrast. In 1905 van Dongen had begun frequenting the famous Bateau-Lavoir, a conglomeration of artists studios at the top of the steps leading to No. 13 Rue Ravignan in Montmartre, Paris. Here, some of the 20th century's most influential artists were living including: Matisse, Braque, Derain, Dufy, Marie Laurencin (1885-1956), Modigliani (1884-1920), Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955) and Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973). It was here that he met Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), and the two became friends, even sharing rooms for a short while. During Picasso's Rose Period, the artists used to go to the circus together once a week, sketching. Where Picasso's paintings were more melancholic, van Dongen's were humorous, lively and joyful. A colourful example is his Clown (1906).


Van Dongen also became known for his portraits, as in Friend of Mrs Edwards (c.1910, private collection). This fashionable beauty stares directly at the viewer. Her lips are brightly coloured, eyes wide open, she is wearing a chic black dress that clearly identifies her as a lady of society, rather than a performer. Van Dongen was interested in exploring the allure of the female figure, and focused on the skin, elongating the neck. The backgrounds to his portraits are generally minimal, and the palette restricted to a few colours - green, red and black being his usual choice. Woman in Black Hat was one of several paintings he created of women with head adornments. They may have been a response to the sensationalism caused by Matisse's ground breaking painting Woman with a Hat (1905, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco), which scandalised critics at the 1905 Salon d'Automne. However, where Matisse tended to use a wider palette, van Dongen was more limited, often using his favourite emerald green to create form and dimension. Traditionally this was achieved through the use of chiaroscuro, but now these artists were replacing it with chromatic contrast, placing complementary colours side by side. The combination of elegant subject matter and bold palette was to dominate van Dongen's art throughout the 1920s.

German Expressionism, Die Brucke

In 1908 van Dongen joined the German Expressionism group Die Brucke (The Bridge), based in Dresden. Key members of the group were Erich Heckel (1883-1970), Fritz Bleyl (1880-1966), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976). Later Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Max Pechstein (1881-1955) and Otto Mueller (1874-1930) became members. Die Brucke shared many similarities with Fauvism: both employed non-naturalistic colours to express emotion. Also, both had an interest in primitivism and employed crude drawing techniques. Die Brucke, along with the Der Blaue Reiter group, was a key contributor, to German Expressionism. Van Dongen exhibited with the group many times. He developed good contacts with important art dealers, which brought him great financial success. In addition, he also received a significant number of commissions and invitations to exhibit.

Portraiture: 1920s Onwards

Van Dongen continued to paint for the rest of his life - mainly fashionable portraits of society ladies - and his paintings are represented in many of the best art museums around the world. In 1926 he was awarded the French Legion of Honour and in 1927 the Belgian Order of the Crown. However the highpoint of his career is exemplified by works he created for the modern art movements of Fauvism and German Expressionism, during the first two decades of the 20th century. Kees van Dongen died in Monte Carlo in 1968.

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