What Andy Warhol was to New York in the 1960s, Kees van Dongen was to the Paris of the 1920s-a society artist and Bohemian who brought added colour and excitement to the city.
-Review of All Eyes on Kees Van Dongen Exhibition, Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen, Rotterdam, 2010-2011
An artist whose career was defined by coloristic expression and unyielding originality, Kees Van Dongen and his unique style grabbed the attention of early 20th-century art connoisseurs, ranking him one of the leading Modernists of the era. Such expertise is showcased in his composition titled, Still Life with Chrysanthemums and a View of Montmartre, a painting that epitomizes Van Dongen's virtuosic use of color and dramatic brushstrokes.
Painted during an incredibly lucrative time of his career, Van Dongen's Still Life showcases the richness and intensity of color and composition for which he is renowned. The burst of blooming chrysanthemums that dominate the composition are carefully constructed with a profusion of colors, layered in such a skillful and stylized manner as to convey a sense of harmony. From behind these beautiful blossoms peaks a painting of Montmartre, with the iconic dome of the Cathédrale de Sacre Coeur standing luminescent in the background. Adding to Van Dongen's play of color, this diminutive scene of Montmartre was also an homage to the artistic neighborhood in which Van Dongen had established himself nearly a quarter-century before.
Van Dongen received his early artistic training at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rotterdam. He moved to Paris in the early 1900s, settling in the Montmartre district, known then the artistic hub of the city. There Van Dongen found himself immersed in an environment that stimulated his creativity and inspired him to begin exhibiting his paintings. Even in his earliest shows his works were showcased alongside the artistic masters of the day. In the 1905 Salon d'Automne, in fact, Van Dongen's paintings were hung in the same gallery as those of 21st-century revolutionary Henri Matisse.
To have his works displayed near those of Matisse was an honor for the young artist, but this exhibition bore even greater significance, as it was from this pivotal showing that Fauvism, the "wild beast" of the early 1900s, was born. Matisse had pioneered the Fauvist technique, exemplified by intensely expressive colors and intense brushwork. Van Dongen's early paintings bore the hallmarks of this explosive expression, ushering him into the circle of the leading avant-garde painters of the day, including Maurice de Vlaminck, Edouard Vuillard, and Pablo Picasso. By the end of the decade, Van Dongen's works were also featured in the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, considered by many the most important French contemporary art dealer of the early-20th century.
The onset of World War I proved detrimental to artists across Europe, and Van Dongen was no exception. The years immediately following the war, however, were some of his most prolific and profitable. In addition to painting still lifes, Van Dongen also accepted portrait commissions. By the 1920s, his reputation as a preeminent portraitist among the most elite echelons of Parisian society garnered him extraordinarily high wages for his works. These commissions not only granted the artist financial security, but they also allowed him the freedom to devote significant time to his unending quest for originality. So, when not completing commissions, Van Dongen returned to his passion, the genre of still life, where he continued to play with color and form. Such can be seen in Still Life with Chrysanthemums and a View of Montmartre.
Works like Still Life with Chrysanthemums and a View of Montmartre were not only painted during the peak of Van Dongen's career, but they are also some of the most desirable works by the artist available today. Many are already sequestered in museum collections, such as the fantastic Still Life with Flowers (seen right), which graces the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. And for the few works from this period that do appear on the auction market, many achieve prices well above the $1 million mark.
This work is to be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Kees van Dongen being written by Jacques Chalom des Cordes.