Van Dongen: Painting the Town Fauve

By the time that Dutch artist Kees Van Dongen died in his home in Monte Carlo he was essentially a forgotten painter. This anonymity has only gotten deeper in the years since his death. This is a shame considering he was one of the more influential and interesting painters of the early 20th century. The aim of this exhibition, presented in association with the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, is to reintroduce this controversial yet brilliant painter to the people of North America.

Van Dongen was born in 1877 in Delfshaven (suburb of Rotterdam) and at age 16 began his studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rotterdam. In between the years of 1892 and 1897 Van Dongen spent his free time in the Red Quarter seaport area observing the sailors and prostitutes. Inspired by them he began to draw pictures of them. This was his introduction to being an observant of society and a highly sensual painter.

In the aftermath of Post-Impressionism came a small group dubbed the Fauves, which literally means "Wild Beasts". These modern painters focused on bold colours and painterly qualities rather than realism like the Impressionists had. It was a short lived movement lasting only three years from 1905-07, but was made up of several important painters like Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, André Derain, and, of course, Kees Van Dongen.

Van Dongen had moved to Paris in 1897 and was introduced to Augusta Preitinger ("Guus"). They married in 1901 and he began painting. His first major appearance was in 1905 at the controversial Fauvist Salon D'Automne. He had two paintings at the exhibition, but they were in a room with the great Matisse. Despite the fact that he only had two paintings Van Dongen managed to make a name for himself due to the fact that they used bright colours and one of the two featured a nude woman. Controversy was something that followed him his career long.

The Fauves established themselves as first and foremost painters of nature. From the beginning Van Dongen distanced himself from the other Fauves by depicting human nature in all its wild colours. He focused primarily on the human form and a great portion of his painting was very sensual renderings of women. His portraits of lovers, Orientals, coquettes, and women in general became like an obsession. Van Dongen was the exception even amidst the Fauves.

The Van Dongen exhibit is divided into four time frames: 1895-1904, 1905-1910, 1910-1914, and 1914-1929. In the first part we are told how he left home at 18 and began observing and painting the human behaviours that went on in the brothels, red-light district and docks of Rotterdam. He then moved on to Paris and joined the short-lived Fauve movement. The second period is called the Montmartre Period. Van Dongen begins to broaden his range of subjects and begins to hang out at the Cirque Médrano and Bateau-Lavoir with Picasso. He also gained a reputation amongst the French bourgeoisie as an excellent portraitist. At this time he painted portraits of such well-known people as Maurice Chevalier and Leopold III of Belgium. During the third period he follows Matisse to Morocco in 1910 and really begins to embrace the vulgar, exotic and sexual in his paintings. In 1913 he traveled on to Egypt. In the last section we see a man who is truly part of the avant-garde. All of his exhibitions led to large crowds, occasional riots, public outcry, and shock. He became known as a talented portraitist and an illustrator of the Roaring 20's.

Van Dongen was always an anarchist and a social critic who lived his life on the fringes. He is truly an artist of the avant-garde. The exhibit performs the important function of reintroducing the artist to us and allowing us the rare opportunity to see his paintings in person.

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