Blanche Dergan by Van Dongen; a star rediscovered.

Earlier this month I was commissioned by David Wade to look into a rather fantastic portrait by Kees van Dongen of an unknown lady. David very kindly asked me to write a piece about the research. It was especially satisfying, not only because we reidentified the subject of a masterpiece, but because we rediscovered a remarkable woman, and, thanks to the University of Alberta Archives, an amazing correspondence between her and a great playwright. With his permission, here is the piece on David Wade Fine Art.




Purchased by David Wade Fine Art acting as agent for a private collector at Christie’s London, recent research, commissioned by David Wade, has identified the sitter as Blanche Dergan the Hungarian-born actress, star of Expressionist theatre and film. Venise no. II Le Manteau de Cygne is one of of Van Dongen’s greatest 1920’s portraits, the apotheosis of his Society portraiture in this period.

By this date, Van Dongen, the painter of absinthe and red light, had become the iconographer of Parisian high society, and his sitters were women who spent the Season at Deauville, on the Riviera and at Venice. In these portraits, he deliberately recalls and updates the Old Masters. A review of the Salon d’Automne at the Grand Palais in 1921 describes Van Dongen as ‘the sybarite of sybarites… [his portrait of Jean Marchand] is a Madonna from the medieval cathedrals of France. Van Dongen’s ladies are modern Dianas of Poitiers. They do not nurse babies; they read Anatole France, wear jewels and low-cut dresses, command and are adored.’ (American Art News November 12th 1921 p.6).

Venise no. II Le Manteau de Cygne is a similar nod to the Renaissance. The sitter luxuriates in her swansdown cape as if it is alive, and the portrait becomes a jazz-age Leda and the Swan. This subject had interested Van Dongen at least as early as 1925, when his title page to Paul Leclerc’s books of poems Venise seuil des eaux shows a slender, sinuous woman in stockings and heels delicately kissing a swan who has enfolded her in his wing. The model resembles the Marchese Casati, avant-garde artists’ muse and Venetian hostess who had introduced Van Dongen into a whole new world by the end of the previous decade, inspiring the air of extravagant fantasy in his portraits from that date.

Kees Van Dongen Venise no. II Le Manteau de Cygne, portrait of Blanche Dergan c.1928,  77×51″

Kees van Dongen and Blanche Dergan at 5 rue Juliette Lamber, c.1928 (Unknown photographer)

These portraits are not one-sided exercises, however. He is, American Art News continues, ‘a magician’; his power lies in conjuring mutual fantasies and letting his sitters express themselves. Venice also had powerful associations for the sitter, who had already inspired another great work with a Venetian theme, Georg Kaiser’s 1922 play Die Flucht nach Venedig ‘The Flight to Venice’. In this instance we were fortunate to acquire, post purchase, a set of photographs showing the sittings for this portrait in Van Dongen’s studio, in which the model’s face was fully visible for the first time.

Through further research we discovered that the painting had been exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts at Paris in May 1928, when it was illustrated – though not described – in the Figaro Artistique (no.195 May 24th 1928). This gave a likely date for the painting of the portrait, though not the sitter’s identity as it was described as Portrait de Mme D-. We shared these findings with the Comité Van Dongen, who are preparing the artist’s Catalogue Raisonné. The Comité very kindly told us that an inscription Madame B.D. was (faintly) recorded on the back of the painting, along with an exhibition label from the Exposition Internationale at Venice in 1932. Finally, the last piece of the jigsaw, we discovered a cutting from an unknown English-language magazine, which illustrated the painting as Mlle Blanche Dergan: ‘A typical Van Dongen’.

Blanche Dergan is listed on the International Movie Database for her appearance as the Countess and the Daughter in Emil Justitz’s 1919 film Johannistraum a piece of early Expressionist cinema. This is Dergan’s only known film; she was a star of Expressionist theatre. Stage and studio photographs in the Getty Image Archive confirm Dergan as the sitter in the portrait. They show her as Salome in 1917, as the Actress in Arthur Schnitzler’s controversial play Die Reigen ‘The Ring’ in 1921, and as George Sand in George Kaiser’s Die Flucht nach Venedig in 1923 [a remarkable photo worth seeing, here at the Getty Archive]. A further image survives in the same collection of Dergan sitting to the Japanese artist Tsuguharu Foujita in Paris in 1927.

This information is enough to establish a likely date of 1928 for the painting, and a skeleton biography for Blanche Dergan. A further remarkable source allows us to imagine at least part of what Dergan and Van Dongen reminisced about in the sittings. The Bruce Peel Special Collections and Archives at the University of Alberta hold copies of a correspondence between Blanche Dergan and Georg Kaiser from 1918 to 1924. It charts the writing of several of Kaiser’s plays including Der Gerettete Alcibiades 1919, ‘The Rescue of Alcibiades’ in which Dergan may have played Phryne, and the smash hit Die Flucht nach Venedig 1922 about George Sand the novelist which was written for Dergan.

The correspondence also solves the question of Dergan’s nationality. In 1919 Kaiser flirts gently with her, sending her a dialogue between a man and a woman on the telephone. Neither knows who the other is, but the man guesses that the woman is ‘the Madonna of Puszta.’ (p35)1 This is a region of Hungary near the Ukrainian border, and this with an earlier reference to ‘your Hungary’ (p30) suggests that Dergan was Hungarian.

The letters begin with a time-honoured exchange between writer and actor – ‘why didn’t I include a part for you in my book of one act plays? I didn’t know if you’d be free – without a word from you how could I know?’ (October 28th 1918 p5). Kaiser can see her as Syvlie in Der Brand im Opernhaus ‘The Fire at the Opera’ but it is being blocked by the Censor. These are uncertain times, which each handles according to their temperament.

In November 1918, Kaiser worries that ‘Berlin rages with revolution’ (p19) but Dergan replies, ‘Strangely these storms don’t disturb me… It is night, the wind howls, shots fall, the storm rumbles and the windows rattle – you feel you’re alive’ (p18). When the two try to meet early the next year, Kaiser is unable to travel: ‘the political situation makes it impossible to plan anything.’

Kees van Dongen and Blanche Dergan at 5 rue Juliette Lamber, c.1928 (Unknown photographer)

He is amazed therefore that Dergan is ‘at the Baltic already!’ (p30) where she is staying at a spa resort. But Dergan has a way of moving about the world effortlessly, not so much as if she is above the chaos but as if it is part of an element with which she is in tune: ‘A woman can understand this better than a man.’ (p60). With Berlin in turmoil she writes: ‘Twilight comes on slowly here, the air smells of the salt lagoons, storm clouds loom over with their dark circles – and I drink in the sound, as if I’m being carried on a musical wave’ (p29).

The rough side of events clearly touched Dergan – ‘the Russian student, you know the one with the revolver, shot himself on the stairs of my apartment. I found him myself at 7 this morning.’ (p85) – and she suffers from depression – ‘From time to time I’m afflicted by an abyss of gloom; naked to nothingness; my heart fills with the drip of memories. I was married once; for three days, it was annulled’ (p43) – but the antidote is a walk in her beloved Bohemian forests then ‘early to bed with Simmel’s Sociology… I strongly suggest reading it. You’ll find the answers to everything in it.’ (p45) When Kaiser is in real trouble her response is immediate and heartfelt: ‘Ge-Ka in need! The news hit me like a thunderbolt… what’s happening? What can I do for you?’ (p103) We do not know what crisis provoked this letter in November 1920; three years later Kaiser was arrested for stealing a loaf of bread during the inflation crisis (Information from Georg Kaiser (1877 – 1945): wikipedia), but there seems to be no mention of it in the correspondence.

In Dergan’s creed – ‘Rationality is a curse; Irrationality is a blessing’ she writes in 1922 (p170) – she resembled the characters she played, particularly in her relationships with men. In Flucht nach Venedig George Sand leaves her husband for the poet Alfred de Musset; they fly to Venice; De Musset becomes ill, and Sand falls in love with his doctor. This spiritual kinship made Dergan irresistible to Kaiser as a muse, and increasingly as a woman.

The correspondence becomes an epistolary love-affair, though the risks for Kaiser are all too obvious: ‘Metaphysical risk-taking keeps me in balance,’ says Dergan in 1920. (p90) She alternately stokes and smothers the flame: ‘My jewellery is lying around the hotel room; your letters are safely locked up in the vault at Deutsche Bank’ (p30), and two days later: ‘Your letters to me come hot and often; mine come cool with pauses.’ (p32)

In November 1920 Dergan writes breezily from Prague. She is engaged and will be married soon.  ‘Don’t worry,’ she says, in case Kaiser fears some doomed romance: ‘We’re not starving yet; Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde ended in death, not the marriage bed.’ (p101) Nothing further is heard of this fiancé, and in August 1921 Dergan writes from Kashmir, in the foothills of the Himalayas – ‘I delighted in the light of the primeval forest… until I was turned back by a large snake gliding past me and a deep desire for the post from Europe’ (p111).

Dergan and Kaiser meet in March 1922: ‘In flesh and blood the black-and-white vision of your beautiful figure shines out above all others.’ (p138) Flucht nach Venedig was conceived at this same time and in June Kaiser writes, ‘I dream of Venice – I love you – and miss you dearly…’ (p144) Dergan received the draft script of the play that month.

In late summer Dergan writes to say that Georg Sand is leaving Venice (p161); that she is in a torment of fever. (p163) Something has happened: ‘Blanche! I’m more shaken up than you. Are you human? Or are you an element that dissolves at a touch? I’m broken by doubt.’ (p166) All becomes clear when Dergan writes from Dr Dengler’s sanatorium: A tension grew up, she says, between two young men and a young woman in Venice. One of the men was ‘23, handsome, rich and the bud of a great aristocratic family’ and he and the woman – ‘that is Blanche’ – got engaged at once. It didn’t work out, and now ‘You’re at Binz on Rügen Island finishing Georg Sand; I’m in a sanatorium in Baden Baden, ailing.’ (p167) Kaiser wants to help and he has found her an apartment to rent in Berlin: ‘Tomorrow I will write the last words of ‘Flight to Venice.’ This work has worn me to be bone like no other.’ (p174) The play is on the books of the Prague Theatre in August 1922.

In September 1923 Dergan writes from Uscio near Genoa. ‘Dear Friend, perhaps my only friend in the world… I’ve left my husband – no comment – the solicitor will handle the divorce. Came here for some freedom… I’m done with Venice. But do come to Genoa! Instead of dazzling light I’m floods of tears right now, O progeny of howling emptiness.’ (p182)

Kees van Dongen and Blanche Dergan at 5 rue Juliette Lamber, c.1928 (Unknown photographer)

This is the moment Kaiser must always have been waiting for. If only travelling to Italy was not so difficult – ‘that journey is purgatory; why doesn’t anyone fly?’ The news does him so much good it’s like being born again: ‘At the least I’ll find a new America of the Mind,’ but he is ruefully sensible ‘– silly – silly – silly. When will I hear from you again?’ (p183) In March 1924 Dergan writes to ‘My poet!’ saying that Flucht nach Venedig has opened in Vienna, and will be in Prague next (p187). In May, she writes from Paris. She is married, and signs with her initials BDF. Her husband has brought her there. She has always been a romantic, she says, and she can never resist temptation, ‘the atom of Doubt.’ But listen, she says, the legendary director Louis Jouvet would like to bring Flucht nach Venedig to Paris, ‘with of course a bit of tinkering in the part of Georg Sand. Now get to work!’ (p189) Kaiser replies: ‘The Flight to Venice cannot be changed. It stands as a monument to a wonderful time in my life which can never be recaptured. With the greatest respect, your Georg Kaiser’ (p190).

It is the last letter in the collection, though perhaps it should be paired with one Dergan wrote in August 1922, in which she says of Kaiser’s letters: ‘One day I will make a necklace from these pearls, whose shimmer will brighten my life until my deathbed.’ (p185)

This train of events brought Blanche Dergan to Van Dongen’s studio in 1928. Perhaps it also explains the mood of the sitting. The photographs suggest two people of the world with similar lives, shared friends and places, who were both transformed by Venice. We cannot know how Dergan got into character for the pose, but her life as George Sand would have been superb motivation.

Curiously, Van Dongen’s portrait is the last known trace of Blanche Dergan to date. Perhaps she then retired under her married name, but it is hoped that further information will come to light.

We are extremely grateful to Marie-Christine Maufus, Director of Publications at the Wildenstein Institute, and Alicia Odeen, Archives Assistant at the Bruce Peel Special Collections & Archives University of Alberta, for their very generous help in researching this portrait.

Page numbers refer to the transcription of the Georg Kaiser correspondence at the Bruce Peel Special Collections and Archives at the University of Alberta, Accession no: 96-2-6; the translation is the author’s, who bears all responsibility for any errors.