Les lépreuses

Year: 1947

Author: Henry de Montherlant (1896 - 1972)

Artist: Kees van Dongen (1877 - 1968)

Publisher: NRF

Les Lépreuses, title page

Artists, intellectuals and writers from every corner of the world were making their way to the French capital from the end of the nineteenth century onwards: Paris was then the cultural centre of Europe. Among them were many Dutchmen, like the artists Jongkind and Van Gogh in the nineteenth century, and painters like Mondriaan and Karel Appel in the twentieth century. Kees van Dongen, born in Delfshaven, also decided to leave the Netherlands, settling down in Paris in 1900.

He hesitantly began a career as an artist there by submitting illustrations to magazines like L'assiette au beurre.


Van Dongen claimed to have learned to speak French between the sheets of the prostituteshe frequented. But not only did these ladies teach him to speak French, they also provided him with a welcome source of inspiration. In daring paintings Van Dongen portrayed the fringes of society, a world of alcohol and prostitution. His preference for paintings of nude women – prostitutes, but also his own wife and his mistresses – took place under the motto 'the female body is the most beautiful landscape', which caused scandals on several occasions. In Paris in 1913 as well as in Rotterdam in 1949, 'Torse', a painting of his all but naked wife Augusta (Guus), was removed from exhibitions for being too obscene.

Fauvist illustrations

Van Dongen didn't become truly successful until famous publisher and art dealer Ambroise Vollard organised an exhibition of his work in 1904, and especially after the Salon d'Automne of 1905, an exhibition that included canvases by Matisse, De Vlaminck and Derain, alongside works by Van Dongen. The influential art critic Louis Vauxcelles dubbed the creators of the lively, colourful paintings with simplified presentations 'fauves' (wild animals), thereby creating the art movement 'Fauvism'. Van Dongen's fauvist paintings were influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen and Daumier. They became very popular, and Van Dongen entered the highest circles of the art world. He also befriended Picasso, and authors like Apollinaire were frequent guests in his house.

Although Van Dongen is most famous for his paintings, he also occupied himself throughout his life with outstanding graphic work, such as lithography and engraving. He was very active, especially after World War II, as a portrait painter and a book illustrator. He was already experimenting with new printing techniques in the turbulent 1920s. His favourite subjects were women, portraits, fashionable scenes and flowers. Later some considered him an 'Andy Warhol avant-la-lettre': not only due to his unusual printing techniques, but especially because he chose celebrities as his subjects, such as his neighbour Anatole France, whom he portrayed as a decrepit old man, to the dismay of many. In the 1930s Van Dongen stopped experimenting with (for instance) pochoir, using lithography for nearly all of his graphic work. In the 1940s Van Dongen illustrated numerous famous books with his lithographs. Examples are Voltaire's La princess de Babylone (1948), Anatole France's La révolte des anges (1951) and Charles Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal (1968).


Characteristic illustrations

Les lepreuses (1939), the fourth and final part of the controversial cycle of novels Les jeunes filles by Henry de Montherlant, was published in 1947 by NRF/Gallimard in a limited edition, illustrated by the artist. The lithographs for this work were printed in the studio of Fernand Mourlot (1895-1988), just like Van Dongen's other books. Mourlot printed the work of nearly all the great artists in Paris, making his name as executor and promoter of lithography. In Mourlot's studio, Van Dongen drew and painted the various colour states for his lithographs. The result for Les lepreuses could be called 'typical' Van Dongen. The 26 illustrations (cover included) are colourful images of flowers, cats, dogs, naked women, and some beach and restaurant scenes.


Bibliographical description

Description: Les lépreuses / par Henry de Montherlant ; avec des lithogr. de Van Dongen. - Paris : N.R.F., 1947. - [260] p. : ill. ; 34 cm

1e uitgave: 1939

Printer: Jourde en Allard (Parijs) Mourlot (Parijs) Lucien Détruit (Paris)

Edition: 390 copies

This copy: Number 70 of 354 on Rives B.F.K.

Typeface: Bodoni

Bibliography: Bénézit 4-667 ; Monod 8374 ; Prout II-470-03

Shelfmark: KW Koopm A 399


  • Paul van Capelleveen, Sophie Ham, Jordy Joubij, Voices and visions. The Koopman Collection and the Art of the French Book. The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands; Zwolle, Waanders, 2009
  • Paul van Capelleveen, Sophie Ham, Jordy Joubij, Voix et visions. La Collection Koopman et l'Art du Livre français. La Haye, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Bibliothèque nationale des Pays-Bas; Zwolle, Waanders, 2009
  • Louis Haumeil, Van Dongen, l'homme et l'artiste, la vie et l'oeuvre. Genève, Cailler, 1967
  • Jan Juffermans, Kees van Dongen: Het grafische werk. Zwolle, Waanders, 2002
  • Fernand Mourlot, Gravés dans ma mémoire. Paris, Opera Mundi, 1979
  • Pierre Sipriot, Montherlant sans masque: 'écris avec ton sang' 1932-1972, T. II. Paris, Laffont, 1990