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The Portraits of Philip de Laszlo

A new biography solidifies his place in the golden age of 20th-century art

4:00 PM, Oct 14, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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In the world of the 20th century portrait there is John Singer Sargent, and all the rest. But first in line, just behind Sargent, is Philip de Laszlo (1869-1937), a poor Hungarian boy who rose to eminence in his own country, and in the wake of a stunning likeness of Pope Leo XII--now in the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest. He arrived in England on the eve of World War I and became Sargent’s successor as portraitist of record for the interwar years. Between then and his death on the eve of World War II, there was no better, and no more successful or influential, portrait painter in the English-speaking world than de Laszlo. This is his first major biography since 1939, and it is as fine a depiction as the subject ever rendered.

The Portraits of Philip de Laszlo

detail from 'Philip de Laszlo: His Life and Art'

They are also, in their way, a distinctive record of a moment in social history. Here are the politicians, hostesses, novelists, archbishops, and tycoons of their day, depicted as they would have wished to be seen, but rendered with a penetrating, literary flair. Old age is ill-disguised by costumes (Lady Wantage, 1910) and power (Andrew Mellon, 1926), and good looks (Anny Ahlers as Madame Dubarry, 1933) are transformed into Art, and faces cannot hide ambiguities of character (‘King Alfonso XIII of Spain,’ 1910). The early 20th century was a golden age in the art of portraiture in England--William Orpen, John Lavery, Walter Sickert, William Nicholson--and Philip de Laszlo retains his pride of place.

Philip de Laszlo: His Life and Art by Duff Hart-Davis, Yale, 412pp., $55

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