Van Dongen was born near Rotterdam in 1877. Though he received some formal training, he mostly developed his skills through sheer endurance and practice. His first paying job as an artist was as an illustrator of ports and prostitutes for a local publication. These “character studies” caused quite a sensation.
Arriving in Paris in 1897, Van Dongen had his first exhibition there in 1903. The liveliness of his colors, freedom of expression, and the boldness of naked figures caused a scandal at this and subsequent exhibitions. Throughout his career, Van Dongen was associated with Fauvism and German Expressionism, both of which embraced bold color and freedom from Realism.
He found further notoriety with his portraits of women from French society. Quite unlike the standard flattering likenesses that were popular at the time, his were known for their crude reality and harsh colors. In many ways, it was sensationalism itself that fueled his success and he is an early example of the “celebrity-artist,” paving the way for Warhol, Basquiat, Haring, and others.
It has been said that Van Dongen created a “new type of women.” As the following quote demonstrates, he had a complicated relationship with females (note the repeated use of the word “it”). “A woman is like a flower that one picks and throws away. At other times, it is all of earth and all of heaven; it is the fire of life, it is the spouse, and also the lover. It is forgetting oneself in voluptuousness.”
Late in his career, Van Dongen switched to spontaneous land and cityscapes and spent his final years in Monte Carlo in extravagant luxury, working on these themes.