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Promenade au Bois de Boulogne / Outing in the Bois de Boulogne



Kees Van Dongen (1877-1968)
Promenade au Bois de Boulogne / Outing in the Bois de Boulogne
oil on cardboard
AGLC 384 @ A.G Leventis Gallery

Born in 1877 near Rotterdam, Kees van Dongen began his career in the Netherlands. His early harbour scenes, in a simplified graphic style inspired by the artist Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859- 1923), whom he had discovered during his first stay in Paris in 1897, already attest to his fascination for subjects drawn from the dregs of society, describing undesirables or prostitutes. Returning to Paris in 1899, van Dongen settled in Montmartre. In order to earn a living, he continued to publish naturalist drawings in satirical journals, such as L’assiette au beurre. Up until then, painting had remained in the background of his creative activities, soaking up the contemporary Parisian, Impressionist, Nabis and Neo-Impressionist art movements, as well as the influence of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), but his originality attracted the attention of the art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), who mounted the first solo exhibition of his work in 1904. Having also exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne, that year marked the beginning of van Dongen the painter, as well as his first critical successes. Even though, at the Salon d’Automne of 1905, he found his work being exhibited apart from the famous ‘Salle des Fauves’, which gathered together Henri Matisse (1869-1954), André Derain (1880-1954), Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), Albert Marquet (1875-1947), Henri Manguin (1874- 1949) and Charles Camoin (1879-1964), the critics and the public had no difficulty including the young Dutchman in this modernist art movement. His series devoted to the circus and fairgrounds are Fauvist by their simplification and schematisation of their forms, and their audacious range of colours, where animated brushstrokes and large areas of solid colour alternate, with the completed work preserving the appearance of rapid improvisation and coarse texture. The aggressiveness and roguish sensuality of his canvases are also reminiscent of the German Expressionists. In fact, as of 1908, van Dongen showed his work with the Die Brücke group. 

Thanks to his friend, the art critic Félix Fénéon(1861-1944), van Dongen was put under contractby the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune from 1909 to 1916,and the material comfort he was thus ensuredallowed him to travel to Spain, Morocco and Egyptbefore World War I. His ties to the Marquise LuisaCasati, and then to Léa Jacob, known as ‘Jasmy’,a model who worked for a well-known fashionhouse, turned him, especially after the war, to agenre that assured him fame: the society portrait.The aristocracy, the demi-monde, the world ofthe spectacle are all depicted in the form of large,dazzling effigies in bold, provocative colours, wherethe subject is treated as if for a poster. In April1916, van Dongen left the bohemian district ofMontparnasse and moved to 29 Villa Saïd, near theBois de Boulogne. This was a house-cum-studio, itswalls painted bright blue, yellow and violet, whichthe artist filled with his Indian sculptures and whichbecame the place where the worlds of fashion,cinema and the theatre came together and held their parties. Van Dongen left this house in 1922to move into an even more luxurious residence, ata time when he was considered an equal of PabloPicasso (1881-1973), Matisse or Derain.

Promenade au Bois de Boulogne can be dated by an inscription on the reverse, which mentions the painter’s address, 29 Villa Saïd, thus placing it somewhere between 1916 and 1922. The elegant rider, sketched with humour under a leafless tree, on a branch of which sits a pair of birds, evokes the Bois de Boulogne, located very close to the painter’s house and a place where elegant society still paraded along the bridle paths. This motif is somewhat reminiscent of the stationery which the painter had designed for his personal use.1 Its linear character also brings to mind the ceramic works van Dongen made for Count Harry Kessler in 1909.2 Even if this vivid sketch cannot entirely define the painter’s art during that period, it nevertheless reveals its component parts. The Fauvist elements endure in the simplification of the forms and the autonomous play of colours within a soberly suggested space. The painter’s palette is subtly organised around broken tones – grey, blue, ochre and green. The method of execution, alternating energetic smears and long, fluid brushstrokes wants to remain unrefined, at times allowing the background of the rough cardboard support to show. The arbitrary cutting off of the second horse introduces a rhythm of a repetitive frieze against an abstract backdrop and evokes a taste for the ‘primitive’, which van Dongen had developed during his journeys abroad. 

The Villa Saïd period was a prelude to the intense activity of the 1920s, during which the artist, celebrated and scandalous, reached the height of fame, especially as a portraitist. Cleverly, he turned his next house, at Rue Juliette Lamber and fully furnished by him, into a permanent exhibition space and a venue for parties where one went to see and be seen, and where the people featuring in his portraits recognised each other. This period came to an end with the financial crisis of the 1930s, which obliged van Dongen to reinvent himself and to evolve towards a more academic realism. Living in Monaco, in a villa baptised ‘Le Bateau- Lavoir’ (the wash shed – a nod to the bohemian years when he was a neighbour of Picasso in the so-named dilapidated building in Montmartre), he died in 1968, at which point his standing – painter of the avant-garde or successful society painter – became ambiguous in the eyes of the public. However, recent historiography has contributed to the acknowledgment of van Dongen as a luminous painter, who invited the viewer to surrender to his magic: ‘A painting,’ he said in 1921, ‘must be something exciting, something which exalts life. [...] What’s nice about our time is that one can blend everything together, mix it all up: it is truly the era of the cocktail.

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About the artist

He began his career in the Netherlands, painting harbour scenes, and in 1899 he settled in Montmartre, where he made his living by providing drawings for satirical journals. When he turned to painting, his originality was soon realised by critics and the public, who linked him with the Fauves and some elements of German Expressionism. By the 1920s he reached the apex of his fame, primarily as a portrait painter of fashionable society.

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