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.
Unlike Sargent, de Laszlo considered portraits a painterly vocation, and never resented the imposition on his time and talent. His subjects, of course, were largely those people who could afford to pay his fee, or whose likeness was required for public exhibition (he painted four American presidents). But de Laszlo’s lush style, serene sense of color, and ability to capture his sitters’ interior life, give his works a beauty and grandeur that transcends time and place.
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