I’m just going to come right out and say it: I am consistently drawn to this painting because one of my cats looks just like Kees van Dongen’s long, lithe black feline in this painting. While thoughts of my beloved pet (and admittedly, attempts to push away considerations of my possible future as a cat lady) are initially what strike me as I approach this work, the reason I continue time after time to get up close and study it is not its subject, but that color.
This is a painting you must see in person, for Kees van Dongen was part of the Fauvism movement: he experimented intensely with color. A quick brush-up on color theory reminds us that red and green are opposites (or complementary colors), just like yellow and purple, and blue and orange. When complementary colors are placed next to each other, the visual effect is jarring, sometimes seems in motion, and might make you want to avert your eyes. Fauves—from the French word meaning “wild beasts”—were painters who played with complementary colors to shock you, but also get you to look more closely at the work.
For me, van Dongen’s painting of a woman, cradling a long black cat in her arms, is a study in the varied contrasts between red and green. Her skin is not a healthy peach, but rather a soft honeydew green, making her red-brown hair pop from the painting with force. The painting is grounded in the center by the cat’s long, dark form, streaked with deep blue strokes of paint, emulating fur. The greens range from deep viridian, vibrating around her shoulders, to pale yellows, dabbed into her hands and shoulders. Her red-brown hair sets off the pink flush of her cheeks and the dusty pink-lavender of the background.
The color relationships and the quick softness of the brushstrokes underline the feeling of lazy, calm confidence I get from the work—and this fits the subject: after all, there’s nothing like a cat to evoke lazy confidence in someone, painters included.
Find Woman with Cat on the upper level in the Bradley Collection.
Chelsea Emelie Kelly was the Museum’s Manager of Digital Learning. In addition to working on educational technology initiatives like the Kohl’s Art Generation Lab and this blog, she oversaw and taught teen programs.