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The urban woman remained her central subject throughout her nearly seventy-year career and included celebrities like Josephine Baker (1926) and Brigitte Bardot (1958). Still unrecognizable, his over-made-up feline wife, with her red cheeks, red lips and exaggeratedly darkened eyes, is the ultimate parallel for the painting, which van Dongen called "the most perfect of lies".
Van Dongen brought something new to urban subjects: a freedom of gesture and a chromatic abstraction that surpassed what had come before. Upon his arrival in Paris, we still see Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec in his bars and brothels crunching the action, as they had done for almost 30 years. What van Dongen did again was turn up the heat and add some color. His expanses of pigment accumulate, streak and sometimes bubble on his canvases like good Dutch beer. These compositions create a direct parallel to what he felt, as opposed to simply what he saw, and raised the emotional potential of abstraction to new heights.
Associated with Fauvism early in his career (he participated in their first exhibition), Van Dongen introduced a range of avant-garde urban subjects that went further in challenging social norms than Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck and others, who stuck to traditional bourgeois themes (still life, landscape, portraits and interiors).
Nicknamed "the painter of brothels", van Dongen was particularly fascinated by the red light district, depicting its dancers, singers and prostitutes. Later he would paint high society women, who loved the way he elongated their forms and made them both elegant and slightly dangerous. Despite unfavorable critical comparisons to Matisse (who hated him) and the apparent absence of any moral compass (van Dongen traveled with a Nazi propaganda tour in 1941), he left a remarkable record of fashions and social attitudes in Paris during the first half of of the XNUMXth century, bringing Maurice Vlaminck, fellow Fauve, to call him the ultimate "historian of all cynical licentiousness... prostitutes, hysterical socialites, dissatisfied foreigners, disoriented exotics".
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