THIS small but well-constructed exhibition offers a valuable introduction to Philip de László’s prodigious and captivating oeuvre.
De László hated being called “a society portraitist”, once protesting: “I am an artist of the world and paint history, not only individuals.” He intended his portraits to be gifts to future generations: affording them means to encounter immediately the personalities of those who had shaped world events. He succeeded.
Over five decades, working with manic energy, he produced more than 4000 finished works. His sitters included four Presidents of the United States, three Archbishops of Canterbury, two popes, and every reigning European monarch, excluding the Tsar. Only a diary clash prevented his painting Einstein. Today, just one sitter survives: our Queen, who sat for him in 1933, aged six.
This was an unlikely trajectory for a man with almost no schooling born (as Fülöp Laub) into an impoverished Jewish family in the back streets of Budapest. Despite formidable obstacles of class and education, however, de László’s extraordinary drawing talent won him a scholarship to art college in Munich.
There, at a fancy dress ball in 1892, he met, and immediately fell in love with, a striking young Irish girl, Lucy Guinness — a daughter of the great Anglo-Irish brewing and banking dynasty. It took eight years for her family to allow their marriage. By then, de László had won the Paris Salon Gold Medal and painted one pope and two emperors from life.
Nevertheless, neither talent nor connections saved de László (by then a British subject) from being interned by the UK government in 1917 in a fit of wartime xenophobic paranoia. The artist remained confined for two years. For much of that interval, he was forbidden to paint, on the farcical alleged grounds of “protecting national security”.
De László’s journey between countries was echoed by one in faith. A process of conversion began when, aged eight, he beheld the giant canvas Christ Before Pilate (1881) by Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900), exhibited in Budapest: “I trembled before this great scene which I did not fully understand.” Later, he became, first, a Roman Catholic, and eventually an Anglican. Bishop George Bell of Chichester, a close friend and cousin by marriage, officiated at his funeral in 1937.
It is, in fact, the disquietingly powerful likeness of a cleric, Cardinal Marianno Rampolla, which greets (or perhaps hits) the visitor on entering the exhibition. This portrait, of 1900, was instrumental in establishing de László’s international standing. The composition seems to be a homage to Velazquez’s famous 1650 likeness of Pope Innocent X, and presaged de László’s own later and highly sympathetic rendering of Archbishop Cosmo Lang, commissioned by Church House, Westminster, in 1926.
Although de László, a tailor’s son, relished costumes, he always started with the sitter’s face and worked outwards, subjecting and co-odinating all other aspects of the composition thereto. Likewise, though delighting in both architectural and landscape painting as autonomous genres, he was averse to including too much background in a portrait.
The Rampolla portrait is an extreme example of this tendency. The sinister gaze, a side effect of the Cardinal’s famous glass eye, unsettles the viewer, while the constricted pictorial space threatens to topple the Cardinal’s intimidatingly massive bodily frame out of the picture’s wooden one. The overpowering character of Rampolla’s physiognomy contrasts with the surprising delicacy of his thin and elegant hands, which de László considered the finest that he ever painted.
No offence was either intended or taken in capturing the Cardinal’s unusual appearance thus. Perhaps the picture proved useful in putting the fear, if not of God, then certainly of his representative into ecclesiastical subordinates.
The canonical red dominates Rampolla’s portrait, but, famously, costly ultramarine blue was de László’s favourite colour. Its use tended to signal his especial regard or affection for a sitter when applied to her person.
It is used in his 1925 depiction of the young Duchess of York, later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, lent by the Royal Collection and evoking in both its pigmentation and daring décolletage Sir Peter Lely’s likeness of her ancestoral namesake Elizabeth, Countess of Chesterfield. The Queen Mother referred to this work as “my marble shoulder portrait”.
Love is what evidently moved his brush in perhaps the most moving picture in the exhibition: the portrait of his wife, Lucy (1918). By then, the Home Office had restored his paintbox, but not his liberty. A veritable ocean of aquamarine is used to depict Lucy’s coat and hat twice over — reflected back to us from the looking-glass. Here, the tight composition hints at their legally enforced confinement.
This is the first display of the artist’s work in his native country for almost a century. Hungarians will not, I hope, have to wait so long again.
“‘I am an Artist of the World. . .’ Philip de László (1869-1937)” is in the Hungarian National Gallery, Szent György tér 2, Budapest, until 5 January 2020. en.mng.hu