Van Dongen had always been fascinated with the performing arts and portrayed numerous figures, including acrobats, singers, dancers and stage actors. Actress in the Role of Hamlet can be seen as part of this body of work, and also counts among the cross-dressed subjects in the artist’s repertoire. Women in male stage roles were not uncommon in Van Dongen’s time, and the most famous actress to play Hamlet was Sarah Bernhardt, who performed the Shakespearean play in Paris and London in 1899. The copper-coloured curly hair and wide eyes of the shapely figure would suggest Bernhardt, who was still acting at the time of her death in 1923. An inscription on the back of the painting quotes a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the artist’s hand (Angels and ministers of grace, / defend us! Act I, Scene IV), which situates the scene at the moment Hamlet first encounters the ghost of his murdered father, who informs Hamlet of Claudius’s treachery and swears him to revenge.
© Estate of Kees Van Dongen / SOCAN (2021)