The exhibition’s opening piece is an almost one meter high self-portrait, made by Van Dongen (1877-1968) around 1895. The boy from Delfshaven, born into a working-class family, appears broad-shouldered with his hands in his trouser pockets, his head slightly raised in self-confidence. With his large build, he takes up almost the entire size of the window behind him. The port’s yellow and green masts can be seen through the window.
The eighteen-year-old is on the eve of his departure for Paris. In 1897 he moves into a studio in the Montmartre district. Not to paint, but to draw. Although the slanted roof of the workroom barely allows him to stand upright, it turns out to be a golden opportunity. The district is the epicenter of artists, a group of young avant-gardes who care less about academic art, the ruling rules and the search for freedom in their anarchy.
It is just the right place for the Rotterdammer and his socially critical drawings. Around 1897, he makes the cover drawing for the publication ‘De Anarchie’ by Pierre Kropotkine, which tells something about his sympathies. “I want to be a cartoonist for the people,” he is said to have once claimed.
At the same time, the artist flawlessly knows how to make the right contacts, win over art critics and enter into relationships with the Parisian galleries for modern art, which matter at the time. “Watch out, I’m going to be famous”, is also a statement from the artist in his early years. ‘Het brogede hest’ (circa 1895-1907) is a meter-long oil on canvas of a horse on its hind legs, which seems to be storming the sky. It is one of the last two pieces on display in Singer Laren and probably represents the young man’s ambition.
The compiler of ‘Kees van Dongen, the road to success’ is Anita Hopmans. The guest curator is a Van Dongen specialist and senior curator at RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History. The creation of the exhibition took two and a half years. The works on loan from museums and private individuals come from ‘all over the world’, from New York to Japan. Prince Albert of Monaco, for example, borrowed Van Dongen’s portrait of the boxer Jack Johnson. In 1908, Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champion, leading to race riots in America. Around 1914, the painter depicts him naked with a tall black hat and a walking stick in his hand.
The exhibition includes 65 paintings, 25 drawings, ten posters (a nice portrait of Joséphine Baker) and five ceramics. This gives the public, for the first time, a good insight into the painter’s development and his path to worldwide fame. His talent and ambition contributed to this, plus perhaps a certain amount of luck. Such as a meeting with the then well-known cartoonist Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen. Van Dongen sees him standing on a street corner with his drawings at the beginning of his stay in the Parisian capital. Steinlen is impressed and puts the satirical magazine L’Assiette au Beurre on the trail of the artist. It is his first podium.
“One day I suddenly felt that I should start painting,” Van Dongen is said to have said. The committed illustrator of the Parisian life of prostitutes, artists, circus people and workers made his debut as a painter in 1904 at the Parisian Galerie Vollard. It is an art shop that, together with Cézanne and Gauguin, stands for change in painting. It’s a success, and then it goes like a spear. His work stands out the same year at the Salon des Indépendants and at the Salon d’Automne in 1905 he is represented alongside Henri Matisse, among others. The bright colors of their art gave this group of artists the name ‘Les Fauves’, ‘wild animals’. Van Dongen joined them in 1906.
Picasso invites him to the studio complex Le Bateau-Lavoir, a subsequent studio of the painter located next to the theater Folie-Bergère. There, Van Dongen became acquainted with electric light, which he was the first artist to incorporate into his paintings. He uses a pronounced palette of light green, phosphorous yellow and light orange-red. “His trademark,” says Jan Rudolph de Lorm, museum director of Singer Laren.
“One day I suddenly felt that I should start painting […] Now I’m famous – that’s all,” reads the man’s full text many years later. The committed draughtsman of the time in the cramped studio in Montmartre is a famous painter who finds a muse in women. He lives in a cupboard in a house on the Bois de Boulonge, lives a fashionable life, has a fashionable clientele and then paints.
‘The Little Blue Hat’, the portrait of the chic Parisienne, dates from 1937. Seven years earlier, in 1930, the artist took French nationality. Anita Hopmans: “The French always refer to Van Dongen as ‘Frenchman, born Dutch’. No, it is a Dutchman who came to France.”
‘Kees van Dongen, the road to success’, singer Laren. Guest curator Anita Hopmans. On view until 7 May, open daily from 9.30am to 5.30pm and on Thursdays until 9.30pm.