The Art of Philip de László: An Appreciation; Apollo, July 1933, pp. 16-22
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The Art of Philip de László: An Appreciation 
By Adrian Bury
Apollo, July 1933, pp. 16-22

Portrait painting in these uncertain times is the target of much destructive verbiage. It is a branch of painting that, according to some critics, is now superfluous. If we accept their theory that representationalism is unnecessary, and that the photograph is more satisfactory than a painting, we must admit that the art of Rembrandt, Velasquez, Reynolds, Ingres and Sargent is dead. 

For the young man aspiring to fame in portrait work, certain contemporary criticism is disheartening, and not to be influenced by the cosmopolitan jargon of the pundits is to show uncommon resolution. A student who can emerge untainted by the heresies that have infected the art world for so long requires tremendous faith and enthusiasm. Happy, indeed, is the painter who established himself in the tradition before the Great War shattered the world and released so many doubts and perils, so much theory and so little achievement in art. 

Mr. de László is in such a position, for although he not old in years he won a European reputation at the beginning of the century. Like Sargent, with whom he is comparable in technique, modesty, energy and love of life, he found success long before he was thirty. Nobody can contemplate the portrait he painted at the age of twenty-five of the Archimandrate Gregorius without responding to the confidence of its style. It is the work of youth instinctively old in knowledge. There are poetry, philosophy, and reverence in this portrait. Herein is the promise of beautiful things. 

I revert to this early portrait because it is the key to a remarkable and fortunate career among painters. This picture was commissioned by the King of Bulgaria, and it placed László among princes and their entourage; and henceforth the painter was to live in that environment of power and privilege which was the last expression of the old world. To the younger generation, democratically reared and scientifically amused, the pre-war courts of Europe, autocratic, brilliant, still sanctified by a semblance of divine right, are almost unimaginable. But it was this exclusive system, the remnant of eighteenth-century royalism, that László was destined to immortalize. He is the portrait painter royal of his time. No other artist has painted more aristocrats, and though this may be incidental to art it has its historical significance. 

Posterity will certainly defer to his masterly sketch of Edward VII. What portrait of this much-painted monarch better reveals the man? It is neither a piece of arrant flattery nor a grandiose caricature. We are spared the ponderous regalia which more often than not submerges the state portrait. 

If the greatest study of man is man, László has followed the dictum of the poet with literal devotion, for he has observed a diversity of feature, intellect and mood, rare even for a portrait painter. 

By way of contrast, let us take two such opposing types as Leo XIII and the first President Roosevelt. Pope Leo is perhaps the most tender example of László's genius. It is a work of consummate feeling. How easy it would have been on the part of a more arrogant painter to accentuate this frail face. A man with a less fastidious mind than László's would have allowed his personality to impose on a vulnerable physiognomy. The benevolent smile on such old lips might too readily have turned to cadaverous cynicism. But the artist is conscious of his mission, and with a hand and mind full of grace reveals to us the venerable Pontifex Maximus. For there is a point in portrait painting when the humility is as strong as pride, when it is meet that we should pray before we paint. Observe the hands of Leo, and you will find that they are part of this fragment of immemorial ecclesiastical history. The hands that blessed belong to the eyes that loved in the moment of absolution. 

In the portrait of Roosevelt we find the fact of physical strength stated boldly and unequivocally. Here obviously is a man who enjoyed the world, a brave man with a commonplace face, a man happy in strife whether fighting his political opponents or chasing big game in primeval forests. With that sense of psychology which should be the motive power of portrait painting, László has presented Roosevelt to us as he was, a dynamic personality, without guile or subtlety, a pleb come to power, complete with the trappings of aggression and the whip of intimidation. 

Between these two extreme types, the ascetic and the materialist, is the chivalrous face of M. Korbay. We are confronted by the aristocrat whose pride is modified by a love of art and a sympathy for humanity. M. Korbay was a member of the old Magyar nobility who suffered in the revolution of 1848; but he found consolation in a musical genius nurtured by no less a master than the Abbé Liszt. He has been acknowledged one of the supreme interpreters of Liszt's music. And these facts tend to harmonize his features in a balance of melancholy and courage. 

I have referred to László's sense of psychology, that power to look beyond the surface of anatomy and catch the mystic quality of life. It is the essential of true portrait painting. When we study the works of Van Dyck and Velasquez, we do not doubt that they had a great affection for humanity, and a belief in form and civilization. Real genius is constructive and progressive. It must go hand in hand with culture, and is never the enemy of fine manners. How then shall we accept any portrait which pours scorn on the sitter, ridicules a gentleman as a fool or damns an honest woman as a harlot, too often approved by the "honest woman!"? I have seen some modern portraits that are noisy indictments of their victims. The painter has used the brush as a gaoler might use a lash. This sort of art is easy. 

László has not fallen into this affectation, and whether he paints aristocracy or genius, or mere accidental loveliness, he gives his pride to his art and his courtesy to his sitters. And particularly in the matter of feminine beauty is he successful. 

All art is a form of poetry. There are the epic and the ode in paint, the dramatic, the philosophical and the lyrical. To be able to paint the beauty of women we must be sonneteers at heart. It is more than the desire to flatter that bids the artist seek inspiration in the presence of women. There is something finer than descriptive pleasantry in the love sonnets of Dante, Shakespeare, and Ronsard. There is a note of exaltation which is the soul of song. If it is the influence of sex it is sex at its noblest, and not to be confounded with the sex of modern novelists. In the great sonnets, as in the great portraits, there is a hint of adoration that is partly religious. 

A memorable portrait of a woman is that of the late Lady Wantage. It is the study of an elderly lady whose perfectly shaped features are the legacy of centuries of refinement. There is no monopoly of beauty in time, place or class. Youth has its version, and old age its style. Great Ladies are beautiful, and so are peasants. 

Lady Wantage was beautiful at sixty as she was at twenty. The change in her aspect was incidental to that 'inward grace' which László has portrayed. She leans forward slightly in her chair, and her expression is alight with those ideals which she has cherished for a lifetime. In spite of the fugitive years we see no disillusionment in this countenance. 

The portraits I have mentioned are typical of László's finest oeuvre. He has been a prodigious worker, and he must be judged by the best. His work embraces, if we begin with the portraits of the aged and conclude with the latest impression of the débonair and talented Randolph Churchill, four generations of distinguished personalities. 

Yet it is not only as a portrait painter that he excels. There are moments when feeling and technique in one branch of art, however accomplished, can have a holiday. László is intensely happy in painting the interior of a room, the snow-capped Apennines, or a corner of a Roman Piazza. I saw in his studio a sketch of an Italian fruit vendor, seated under an awning near the Piazza del Popolo. 

"How came you to paint so easily in such a busy place," I asked the artist. 

"It was on the occasion, " he answered, "when I was doing the portrait of Signor Mussolini, and I asked the Duce if he would lend me two guards that I might work in comparative peace at a subject in the streets of Rome that interested me. He responded with enthusiasm, but before I began to make this sketch I approached the old fruit seller and offered to compensate her for the interruption of her business. When she heard that I had just come from the Palazzo Chigi, where I had been painting Signor Mussolini, she declined, with that delicacy characteristic of the Roman, to confuse honour with money. She would not take a single lira. A number of people observed me from behind the authority of the guards. Within an hour the picture was complete." 

"You can imagine," concluded László, modestly, "how happy I was when the fruit seller, the guards and the onlookers rewarded me with a chorus of bravos. It was a delightful experience." 


An exhibition of Mr. Philip de László's works is now being held at Messrs. Knoedler's Galleries, Old Bond Street, the proceeds of which will be devoted to The Artists' General Benevolent Institution. 

(Editor's Note: The article was accompanied by the following illustrationsof portraits by de László:) 

p. 16 - His Grace the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury [1932] 

p. 17 - H.R.H. The Princess Elizabeth of York [1933] 

p. 18 - The Archimandrate Gregorius [1894] 

p. 18 - Mabel, Dowager Countess of Airlie, G.B.E. [1933] 

p. 19 - His Holiness Pope Leo XIII [1900] 

p. 20 - Field-Marshal The Viscount Byng of Vimy, G.C.B., G.C.M.G. [1933] 

p. 21 - Mrs. Philip Kindersley [1931] 

p. 21 - Señora La Marquesa del Merito [1930] 

p. 22 - Mr. A. Lys Baldry [1918] 



Pope Leo XIII
Cosmo Gordon Lang
Archbishop of Canterbury
from 1928-1942
Princess Elizabeth of York
Currently Queen Elizabeth II of England

The Archimandrate Gregorius [1894] 

Mabel, Dowager Countess of Airlie, G.B.E. [1933] 
p. 20 - Field-Marshal The Viscount Byng of Vimy, G.C.B., G.C.M.G. [1933] 

p. 21 - Mrs. Philip Kindersley [1931]

By:  Natasha Wallace
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Created 5/30/2003
Updated 6/6/2003