Sensuous oil portraits of men are extraordinarily rare in early 20th century art, and Van Dongen's Jeune Arabe ranks among the very best of them. Although he made a career for himself depicting the women of the demi and beau monde, it is this searing oil of a North African man that exemplifies Van Dongen's reputation as the most successful portrait painter among the Fauves. Semi-nude and posed with confident nonchalance, the swaggering youth in this picture was inspired by encounters the artist had on a trip to North Africa in the winter of 1910 (fig. 3). The lessons learned from his time there transformed his art, resulting in a brand of raw sensuality that renewed and intensified the original shock value of Fauvism.
Van Dongen was not alone in his fascination with 'orientalism,' which had been a popular subject among French artists dating back to the mid-19th century. Matisse had also made trips to the coastal cities of North Africa around this time (fig. 5), forming his first impressions for the many odalisques that he would later paint after the war. But it was Van Dongen who reacted immediately to the pungent exoticism of Egypt and Morocco and personified it vividly with his Jeune Arabe. The composition itself is formally succinct, using a few sweeping black outlines and swaths of crimson to render the figure's contrapposto stance. There is no discernable setting here, but the stark white background conjures the blinding sun reflecting off the desert sands. "Van Dongen has a personal and violent sense of Orientalism," the poet Guillaume Apollinaire observed in 1911, "a painting often reeking of opium and amber."
Van Dongen painted Jeune Arabe at the height of his career, following a string of highly-successful exhibitions at the Kahnweiler, Thannhauser and Bernheim-Jeune galleries in Paris between 1908 and 1910. Before that, he had established his reputation while exhibiting with the Fauves in 1905 and 1907, and the wildly expressive style that he codified with those artists essentially took hold in his painting for the rest of his career. For example, the cadmium red flesh of the figure in this picture exemplifies the stylistic objectives of the movement. "Fauvism," Matisse once joked, "is when there's red in it" (quoted in J. Klein, "Van Dongen, Postmodern Fauve," in Van Dongen, 2008-09, op. cit., p. 221).
Van Dongen's penchant for a red-dominated palette is well-known, and the impact of the color is evident in Jeune Arabe. Matisse had also recognized the expressive and lyrical potential of using red skin-tones for the figures in his Music and Dance compositions (fig. 1), and Van Dongen may have had these pictures in mind when he completed the present work around the same time. But as John Klein explained in a recent exhibition catalogue, Van Dongen's insistence on the color appealed to audiences otherwise unreceptive to avant-garde art: "In his portraits and female nudes from this long Fauve period, Van Dongen uses the colour red liberally and voluptuously, as a signifier of ardour, sex, and blood. Flooding the faces and bodies of Egyptians or Moroccans (fig. 4), it also signifies the exotic.... When Matisse disingenuously placed all the weight of Fauvism on a single colour, it would not be surprising if he were making a covert reference to Van Dongen's reddish predilections. But by his extravagant deployment of red, Van Dongen was not vitiating its attention-getting effect -- he was doing for Fauvism what Matisse and the others, too restless, and too devoted to the necessity of self-expression in their work, would not. He was ... mak[ing] Fauve style accessible ... with an appeal beyond the narrow confines of the avant-garde" (ibid., p. 223). And surely this bold picture beckons the attention of those well beyond the reach of any invidual artistic movement.
This work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition Kees van Dongen, His Path to Fame, which will be held from September 18, 2010 to January 23, 2011 at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.
Oil on canvas
Kees van Dongen
Saint Tropez, Musée de l'Annonciade & Toulouse, Réfectoire des Jacobins, Kees van Dongen, 1877-1968, 1985, no. 36, illustrated in color in the catalogue
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Van Dongen: le peintre, 1877-1968, 1990, illustrated in the catalogue (as dating from 1911)
Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Kees van Dongen, 2002, no. 48, illustrated in color in the catalogue (as dating from circa 1910)
40 1/8 by 25 3/4 in. 102 by 65.5 cm
François Le Targat, Kees van Dongen, le regard fauve, Beaux-Arts, Paris, July & August 1985, illustrated p. 52 and a detail illustrated in color on the cover
Jérôme Coignard, "Van Dongen, le fauve demi-mondain," Connaissance des Arts, April 2002, Paris, illustrated pp. 5 and 91
Henri Le Boeuf, Brussels
Mme Le Boeuf, Brussels
La Faille, Paris
Private Collection, Paris
Galerie Hopkins-Custot, Paris
Acquired from the above