how the painter Kees van Dongen grew into a battering ram of innovative art

The singer Laren definitely has a crowd pleaser with the exhibition Kees van Dongen – The road to success. Beautiful and monumental paintings show the talent of the ‘Idol of Paris’.

Jan Peter Ekker

‘Just be careful, I’ll become famous,’ the very young Kees van Dongen (1877-1968) is said to have said to the Hague architect Johannes Petrus Lorrie when he bought a drawing from him for a mere sum in 1901.

How it succeeded is the starting point for the exhibition The road to success in Singer Laren, the first major Van Dongen exhibition in the Netherlands since Kees van Dongen’s big eyes. In 2010, with 205,000 visitors, it was the biggest hit in years for Boijmans Van Beuningen from Rotterdam.

This exhibition has been put together by Anita Hopmans, who is doing her Ph.D. on Van Dongen and modernism. She is now also responsible for The road to success. At the time, around eighty international masterpieces spanning Van Dongen’s entire career were on display. Now, as the exhibition title indicates, it is mainly about the path to his success.

The rich exhibition supports Singer Laren’s ambition, which has been great since the museum was expanded with the Nardinc Wing last spring. More than a hundred works by Van Dongen are exhibited: 65 paintings, 25 drawings, 10 posters and 5 pieces of ceramics. They come from all over the world, from the Center Pompidou in Paris and from the Prince of Monaco, but also from Boijmans Van Beuningen and the Stedelijk Museum (by the way: why didn’t the Stedelijk come with this exhibition?).

Pleasure train to Paris

Cornelis Theodorus Maria van Dongen was born in Delfshaven, where his father owned a malthouse. Kees was not interested in working in his father’s malt factory: he loved to draw. Between 1896 and 1898, Van Dongen took evening classes at the Academy of Visual Arts and Technical Sciences (today the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam).

In July 1897 – he was only twenty years old – he traveled to Paris on a ‘pleasure train’, with only ‘a change’, some paper and a piece of chalk in a briefcase.

Via via he got assignments for covers, illustrations in magazines and posters. In the meantime, he built up a network. In December 1897, Van Dongen took part in a group exhibition for the first time. In 1904 he was asked by the Société des Artistes Indépendants to submit paintings to a salon showcasing the new vanguard of painting. In the same year he had his first solo exhibition as a painter at Galerie Vollard. Van Dongen is noted by the press as a ‘special talent’ and mentioned in the same breath as the well-known compatriots Jongkind and Van Gogh.

Van Dongen and Picasso

His breakthrough was the result of a combination of talent, self-confidence and a sense of marketing, says Hopmans in the catalog that accompanied the exhibition. Van Dongen is supported by the right critics, is contracted by leading art dealers and participates in high-profile exhibitions. He joins the group of artists Les Fauves (‘savages’), who break with the traditional rules of rendering color and form and thereby amaze the international art world.

At the invitation of his friend Pablo Picasso, Van Dongen moves into a new studio in the later legendary studio complex Le Bateau-Lavoir – the center of artistic innovation. He again creates a series of sensational paintings: pointillist color explosions of the bustling nightlife of Montmartre.

In the summer of 1910, Van Dongen travels to Spain, Morocco, Algiers and Tunis. In 1913 – Orientalism was extremely popular at the time – another trip abroad follows, via Rome, Naples and Brindisi to Egypt. With his exotic work, Van Dongen subtly opposes the avant-garde.

“I am not an ism, I am the painter Kees van Dongen,” he said, perhaps thinking that he would stand out more as a loner than as a member of a group. Outside the galleries, he creates his own clientele. With large, thematic parties, he expands his network within the cultural elite. In the Roaring Twenties, Van Dongen was a famous society painter. It earns him the nickname ‘Idol of Paris’.

Elegant appearance

The singer Laren shows step by step, from room to room and from work to work, how Van Dongen grew into one of the vanguard of innovative art in Paris. From his youth work La chimere pie (ca. 1895-1905, a colorful flying horse painted on a sheet by his parents) to Margot, a drawing sheet with a song about the fate of the street fair ‘Margot la belle’, which the architect Lorrie bought from Van Dongen. From his bank Fawn Self Portrait (1909, Fauvist self-portrait) to the one specially restored for the exhibition Two games (1911, two eyes, see the picture below), which is on the poster and the catalogue.

The beautiful Le chapeau bleu (1937, The blue hat) has been given a place next to the life-size painting that Van Dongen made in 1931 of the French writer, poet and salon owner Anna de Noailles. On that canvas is an elegant figure in a white robe and a striking red award around his neck.

It is not accidental. In 1937, the monumental portrait of De Noailles was part of Van Dongen’s first retrospective exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum. It was arranged by Joop Siedenburg, a good friend of William Henry Singer Jr. and Anna Spencer Brugh, the founders of the current Singer Museum.

Deputy director Willem Sandberg wanted to acquire the canvas, but did not have the necessary resources. Anna Singer offered a solution by displacing the money so that it ended up in the Stedelijk Museum’s permanent collection.

Le chapeau bleu was the image carrier of the retrospective exhibition. As a thank you, Van Dongen donated it to Siedenburg. His son later gave it back to Anna Singer, so it ended up in the Singer Museum’s permanent collection.

Kees van Dongen – The road to success, until 7 May in Singer Laren


Van Dongen’s ‘Deux jeux’ (1911) was specially restored for the exhibition.Image JK Art Foundation/Pictoright Amsterdam

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