Oh So Fauve

Images by Ferry van der Nat - Text by Sandra van Heerma Voss

Kees van Dongen preferred them tall, slim and blue-eyed, with an open heart, milky white skin and a fiery temperament. But he liked all kinds of women. The Dutch painter who worked his way up to be the toast of Paris during whirlwind 1920s, married twice and had countless liaisons, seducing any lady with his great talking, dancing and painting skills.

Women, for Kees van Dongen (1877-1968), were ‘the most beautiful landscape’, an ever-present source of inspiration; he painted them for their beauty, and he painted men for their ‘ugliness’.

In life, Van Dongen was an impressive man – a clever, witty, bon vivant with little need for sleep. As an artist, though, he was as disciplined, as he was bold, ignoring detractors who found his lifestyle too worldly. He repeatedly caused scandals with his sensual nude and semi-nude portraits of women, freely showing their breasts and pubic hair.

Using his first wife Guus as a model, his 1905 ‘Torso’ was one of two paintings Van Dongen contributed to that year’s Salon d’Automne, where his wild use of color put him in the same room with contemporaries Henri Matisse and Maurice de Vlaminck. The collective result led to one critic nicknaming them ‘Fauves’, wild animals. Fauvism became an art movement soon after, but Van Dongen never wholeheartedly joined in. “We just thought our predecessors’ colors were a little pale” he later said dismissively, explaining that his own color choices might have come been inspired by the harsh lives of his first models: circus artists, dancers and prostitutes. Bright red, blue, yellow and green were his trademark.

While van Dongen’s personal dress code was more bohemian than dandy (even after he made a fortune, he stuck to workmen’s pants or overalls, embellished only by his long, unkempt beard), his contacts within the fashion world gave him a clear sense of modern women’s styles. The crucial starting point was his long love affair with Léo Jasmy from 1916 onwards. Jasmy, the elegant and beautiful commercial director of influential fashion house Jenny, introduced Van Dongen to her extensive network of the rich and fabulous. For Van Dongen, this meant a steady stream of portrait assignments from celebrities, artists and countesses, and this extended his waiting list, and enabled him to raise his fee to 100,000 francs.

Countess Anna de Noailles, a writer and poet of noble Romanian descent, posed for Van Dongen in 1931. When Anna fell ill, actress Arletty temporarily took her place in the sessions. Anna de Noailles was a muse for many other artists, like sculptor Auguste Rodin. At their lavish home, Guus and Kees staged sales exhibitions, parties and fashion shows – sometimes all at once. Another exceptional collaboration came from Van Dongen’s friendship with couturier Paul Poiret, which proved most inspiring. Poiret had revolutionized womenswear by discarding corsets and petticoats to give women straight flowing dresses with exotic prints, which naturally found their way into Van Dongen’s portraits. However, when Poiret’s fashion reign ended dramatically with bankruptcy in 1925, Van Dongen was eager to absorb Coco Chanel’s new ‘garconne’ look.

Whatever the fashion, Van Dongen stayed firmly in charge of his portraits. If a dress disturbed him, he insisted his model take it off. As long as he portrayed them ‘a little taller, a little slimmer’ and made their jewelry a little larger’, he knew they’d be happy.

Makeup: Sandra Govers for Ellis Faas Cosmetics & Kevin Murphy @Angelique Hoorn Management. Hair by Daan Kneppers @NCL. Hair & Makeup Assistant Loes Heuser @Angelique Hoorn Management.