Cornelis (Kees) Theodorus van Dongen was born in a Rotterdam suburb in 1877, the second of four children. A dismal student, Kees left school at the age of 12, working in his father's malt house and taking art courses in the evening at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Rotterdam. High-strung and passionate, he left home at 18 taking a position as a kitchen helper on a trans-Atlantic ship going to New York. Disappointed in this adventure, he returned to Rotterdam to work for the local newspaper, causing a small scandal with his illustrations of the port and its red-light district where he lived.
Van Dongen went to Paris for the first time in 1897, living in abject penury with a friend in Montmartre, taking any odd job he could find and cultivating the engaging persona, which made him something of a luminary among the bohemian demi-monde. Overcome by the wretchedness of his circumstances, he returned to The Netherlands, once again, working for the paper until he saved a nest egg, which permitted him to move back to Paris in 1900 and marry Augusta Preitinger in 1901. Still leading a precarious existence, he became a father in 1905 when Gus gave birth to a daughter called Dolly.
He took up with Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck, and Signac who encouraged him to exhibit in the Salon des Indépendants as well as the Salon d'Automne. By 1904, Vollard had a solo exhibit for him which, while not very successful, did awaken the interest of several art critics. He was represented by two paintings in the now-famous "Fauve" room of the 1905 Salon. Moving to the Bateau Lavoir in 1906, he and his chum Picasso were known to cruise the streets together, selling their canvases for a few francs to passers-by to make ends meet.
In 1908, Max Pechstein visited Paris and invited van Dongen to exhibit with his friends in "Die Brücke". As more and better galleries, in Paris and elsewhere, took an interest in van Dongen's work, he could permit himself to move to more comfortable quarters in 1909 and start travelling. In 1910, his visits to Italy, Spain and Morocco freshened his style. To his bold yet refined harmony were added decorative patterns, often in large flat areas. A trip to Egypt in 1913 added a hieratic element and brought him back closer to his Fauve roots.
In June 1914, his wife and daughter went to Holland for their annual visit but war broke out before he could join them causing a lengthy separation of the family. After the War, he benefited from his friendship with the Marquise Casati, a doyenne of the Parisian aristocracy. As the leading society painter between the Wars, he painted a series of fascinating portraits documenting a frivolous era soon engulfed by the economic crisis of the Thirties.
After World War II, van Dongen moved from his luxurious apartment in Paris to the Côte d'Azur where he passed away in Monte Carlo in 1968 at the age of 91.