Hungry Eyes: The Fashions of Kees Van Dongen

Amelia Rowland

Born in Rotterdam, Holland in 1877, Kees Van Dongen’s paintings portray the vibrancy of the Fauvist style, with the glamour and wealth of French society in the early 20th century. He also had a name that is great to say, rife with innuendo. He settled in Paris in 1899, and once he began exhibiting in the contemporary salons his earlier training in draughtsmanship played second fiddle to his new approach to art: tonnes of bold colour, lashes of paint and a hunt for innovation. 

Kees van Dongen could easily get lost in the art history books on this period, working alongside some of the ‘big’ names of late 19th century and early 20th century art. He exhibited with leading figures of the Fauve movement including Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, Henri Manguin, and named Pablo Picasso amongst his friends. They’re the entourage we could only dream of. The Fauves can simply be described as a group of artists that grabbed the balls of the Neo-Impressionists and stole, then used, every colour in their crayon box. Rather than being rooted in realism and the tangible world like their predecessors, they took inspiration from Oceanic and African sculpture. Van Dongen’s works from his residency in Montmartre, France drew further inspiration from Javanese masks, and Japanese woodblocks depicting kabuki scenes

Kees Van Dongen in his Parisian studio. This is basically Pinterest porn.

Kees Van Dongen in his Parisian studio. This is basically Pinterest porn.

The portraits of Kees Van Dongen are instantly recognisable, with overly expressive features produced in heavy strokes of paint, leaving an almost caricature-like depiction of the sitter. His studies at Rotterdam School of Decorative Arts encouraged his draughtsman talents, and his later work on illustrations and caricatures were featured in satirical magazines. Not one of those £10 tatty street caricatures where you always end up looking like a horse but considered exaggerations that seem to be both at harmony and discord with the composition. Like his approach to the human form, Van Dongen also provided an original portrayal of the changing fashions of his sitters and contemporaries.


Have you ever worn a hat so large that a bird landed in it and started building a nest on the rim? No, because that would be ridiculous. Unless you are one of Kees Van Dongen’s sitters that is! (Disclaimer: this never happened ... THAT WE KNOW OF).

It's physically impossible to count the amount of hats that feature in Kees Van Dongen's paintings, unless you can count to really high numbers without passing out from lack of air, like a deep sea pearl diver who has the lung capacity of a blue whale (1,300 gallons of air FYI). Every hat in each painting differs in colour, size, or style, ranging from the demure (yet still startlingly red) beret of The Corn Poppy, 1919 to the extravagant, borderline neck-breaking Woman with Blue Hat, 1912. Yet across these diverse portraits a pattern emerges: Van Dongen uses these hats to centre the composition in a real space. These hats are vivid depictions of the lines and textures of millinery fashions of the day. 

From 1900-10, large brimmed hats were highly fashionable and were adorned with flowers, ribbons, lace and trimmings. Van Dongen brings this exuberance (and wealth) to life in his paintings. He uses bold colours including lapis lazuli blues, the starkest of whites and sweeping paint strokes to convey the movement of the hats and their feathers and adornments. They also have a characteristic Van Dongen heavy black outline around their shape, giving them dimensions and dragging our sometimes overwhelmed eyes to it.

You can chart how these hats go out of style in favour of the smaller, demure cloche hats and berets in Van Dongen’s work. It also marks a change in how he depicts his sitters’ facial features; as the hats shrink, the eyes grow and become more almond shaped, and some of the extravagance is replaced with what is ALMOST a sense of calm. Calm for Van Dongen that is, the guy wasn’t exactly Manny from Black Books when he swallows The Little Book Of Calm. 

Even his paintings that don’t bear his trademarks of large, almost bulging goldfish eyes, and bold red lips, like Parisian Lady, 1910 they are still somehow recognisable. The brush strokes are still as heavy as ever and you still see an emphasis on colour and line to create depth and characterise the subject. In Parisian Lady he has depicted another ginormous hat in a UFO-style shape: large, circular brim, and a trimming of feathers. His consideration of the placement of the hat, and how the diagonal lines aid the composition, are qualities you see reappearing in his paintings. In this instance you’re left wondering: what is behind this giant hat? A woman with a beautiful face? A woman without a nose? A woman with green eyes? A ham sandwich?
This enigma of a lady is fashionable, mysterious, and her shapely silhouette although fully clothed is also slightly seductive - it’s classic VD to a T.

The costumes and clothing of female performers

Circa 1895,Van Dongen submitted drawings of prostitutes and the red light district of Rotterdam to local publications. His fascination with women performing - in a myriad of ways - was a theme that continued across his work throughout his career. He painted and sketched countless representations of cabaret dancers and circus performers, and nearly 10 years later he returned to this theme with scenes from the Medrano Circus. Van Dongen wasn’t the first artist to find inspiration from this famous Parisian troope, who were formerly known as Cirque Fernando located in central Montmartre. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso and our frequent Sceal fave, Toulouse Lautrec also painted and sketched the shows and performers. 

Van Dongen later revisited this circus series in the painting Au Cirque Medrano, with the performer still the focal point of the painting as she seemingly glides with ease across the foreground on a galloping horse. She is given an otherworldly glow of bright red, which we can assume was her costume streaming behind her. With his characteristic flair for heavy outlines, we see the performer in her red and burgundy corset, and her athletic form is emphasised. 

Kees Van Dongen was also a strong advocate for sexual liberation, however some critics have questioned his treatment of his subjects, and his approach to transgender performance as seen in Modjesko, Soprano Singer 1908. Patricia Leighton in The Liberation of Painting sees Van Dongen’s over-use of colour and simplistic approach to the rendering of the subject’s body as creating a cartoonish treatment, but later noting that his depictions of prostitution show an awareness of the ‘origins of poverty’. An extract of this book can be seen here. However, it is in his illustrations for the journal L’Assiette au Beurre, October 1901, which show the realities of a life of prostitution, and also show us a rare glimpse into the clothing and conditions of the lower classes. These women are not painted in his usual palette, but instead wear simply coloured blouses and long, floor-length black skirts. It is a sombre contrast to his usual vigorous kaleidoscope of excess. You can see the full edition of this journal here.

The Leggy Women

The alternative to his depictions of female performers and prostitution are his portraits of Parisian society after World War I. These are opulent displays of the wealth and glamour found in the wardrobes of his sitters; from drapings of swathes of silk and chiffon, to jewelled details and rich colour palettes. His success moving amongst the Parisian elite came from a variety of factors: his relationship with fashion designer Jasmy Alvin, the patronage of the Parisian ‘King of Fashion’ Paul Poiret, and his ability to depict the most fashionable styles of the androgynous cuts and stances of the Parisian female in a desirable way. In his paintings, these women are all legs and all glamour. That’s often what they say about me, too: Amelia ‘All Legs All Glamour’ Rowland.

His subjects in these portraits range from his models, many of them known only to us now through the title of the work, to his wife or companion of the time, to popular icons of the fashion world. Lea Alvin was all of the above, and her portrait now sits in the Pompidou, Paris: Mme Jasmy Alvin. This painting of Alvin, who was also known on the streets as Jasmy Alvin or Jasmy Jacob, shows the commercial director of the couture label Jenny. Just Jenny.
Like Jenny from the Block.
Jenny from Gossip Girl. 
Whilst the label name is so unbelievably boring (no offence to all the Jennys out there), it was one of the most influential fashion brands of 1920’s Paris, and was sought after across Europe and America.In Van Dongen’s portrait of Alvin he captures the detailed beading and textures of this grey silk dress, and she is draped in a fur shawl. In this full length painting he has produced a detailed rendering of the height of fashion at this time, and most importantly, how these couture outfits should be worn. This work is giant and imposing coming in at a mere 195 cm tall - you can only imagine her towering over you wherever this painting was hung.

Van Dongen also produced a portrait of the fashion and modelling icon, Brigitte Bardot. This chromolithograph, based on a painting (one copy resides in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and other copies can be purchased on several collecting/commercial websites) is an explosion of primary reds, blues and yellows; a celebration of the enthusiasm towards colour embraced by 1960s fashion and designers. This chromolithograph shows the clean lines and figure hugging pencil dress adopted by Bardot, and we see a stark difference to his earlier portraits even with his recognisable return to depicting the eyes of his sitters as if they are goldfish.

KVD’s Legacy

Van Dongen’s portraits of women show his confidence in depicting the beauty and glamour of his sitters, and his obsession with the female form. His works are now recognised as a central part of the Fauvist canon and his subjects are more diverse than I could ever waffle on about in a single article. His paintings can be pared down considerations of poverty, with the flip side that they’re very often about excess and about painting in excess. His legacy was also evident in the Dries Van Noten: Inspirations exhibition in 2014 with our old friend, the monumental portrait of Mme Jasmy Alvin. Kees Van Dongen retired to Monaco as any self-respecting artist or elegant and fashionable gentleman and woman should. What is now left of his body of work is scattered amongst private collections, regularly up for sale at auction houses, and in some of the most respected art institutions. All we ask is that one day we get painted like one of his French girls. Don’t worry, we always manage to work in a Leonardo di Caprio reference. Always.