The artist was born in Delfshaven near Rotterdam. This city was one of the largest ports in Europe and provided the artist with a lively environment to be inspired by. Delfshaven was then still on the outskirts of the city, but nowadays is considered a borough of Rotterdam.
When Kees started painting, his artistic style was inspired by the Impressionists in France. Though van Dongen studied at the Academy of Rotterdam, he did not finish his studies there. He made a living illustrating for the magazines Groene and Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad. His racy drawings of life around the harbour of Rotterdam caused a great scandal when they were published.
In 1897 Van Dongen arrived in Paris but didn’t officially enter the Parisian art scene until 1904, when an abundance of his paintings were exhibited at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery, the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne. During this time van Dongen was linked to the contemporary fauve group of painters, well-known for their intense usage of bright colours, deemed ‘wild’ by the art critics of the period.
After a successful exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1908, Van Dongen moved with his wife and young daughter Dolly to a new, larger home on the Rue Saulnier in Paris. The 1908 exhibition included sixty-four of his canvases and as a result the artist’s relationship with Bernheim-Jeune would grow into a lucrative seven-year contract. Van Dongen would enter higher artistic circles and joined the circle of Pablo Picasso and his then-girlfriend Fernande Olivier.
By 1909, van Dongen had earned his place in the circle of artists which included the fauvist painters André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, but van Dongen’s ongoing use of bold colour and harsher, more brutal tones, ultimately set him apart – some correlated him more closely to the Expressionists rising in Germany. Unsurprisingly, these Expressionists appreciated his daring style; van Dongen’s paintings were exhibited at the Flechtheim gallery in Dusseldorf in 1908, and Pechstein enthusiastically invited him to participate in an event of Die Brücke, a collaborative which included Ernst Ludwig Kirschner and Max Pechstein.
Van Dongen enjoyed success in his lifetime, and was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1926. His later work lost some of the earlier emotional and erotic appeal, focusing on more social, commercial subjects. In a famous later portrait from 1959 van Dongen paints Brigitte Bardot surrounded by a bright yellow environment. He died in his home in Monte Carlo in 1968.