He was the Mario Testino of his day — a charming, prolific artist whose subjects included aristocrats, socialites and royalty. Until now, only the art world has paid attention to the work of Philip Alexius de László, the Hungarian-born painter who, as one of the leading portraitists of the early 20th century, depicted Teddy Roosevelt, Edwardian beauties such as Mrs. George Sandys and Mrs. Edmund Buchanan, and even the young princess who would become Queen Elizabeth II.
That will change with the publication of “Philip de László: His Life and Art” (Yale University Press) this month. Written by Duff Hart-Davis, it is the first biography of de László since 1939, two years after his death at age 68, and covers his upbringing as the son of a Jewish tailor, his rise to the upper class, marrying Lucy Guinness, and his 30-year career painting politicians, popes and other members of the elite.
“He had a genius for catching people’s character,” Hart-Davis says. “During sittings, he was always jumping around and active. He liked to entertain his sitters; he wanted their faces to [move].”
In 1907, de László settled in London, just as the reigning portraitist, John Singer-Sargent, was retiring. By the time World War I began, de László was in high demand. “The landed families wanted a record of their sons who were going off to war,” the author says. “Young men were getting killed by the thousands. De László had to work very quickly.” Among the artist’s greatest patrons was the aristocratic Portland family, for whom he painted 23 portraits.
In 1917, de László’s career came to a dramatic halt when he was arrested and imprisoned on charges of being an enemy alien. The allegations were never proven, and he was released in 1919. “It was an awful interruption,” Hart-Davis says. “He never got over it emotionally.”
Nevertheless, de László continued to paint for almost two more decades, capturing on canvas subjects such as Benito Mussolini, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother when she was Duchess of York, and U.S. Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding. Because his work was always commissioned by private clients, much of it was never seen by the public, and after his death de László virtually disappeared from the history books. “Family portraits tend not to come to market,” Hart-Davis says. “They remain in palaces, castles and country houses, and they’re not terribly valuable, except to the family.”
Along with the biography, the National Portrait Gallery in London is showing a selection of his work through Sept. 5, and the de László Archive Trust is compiling the catalogue raisonné under the guidance of editor and art historian Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, who also contributed to Hart-Davis’ book.
Although de László didn’t make much of an impression on the public during his lifetime, he certainly did on his subjects. Queen Marie of Romania, who sat for de László in 1924, wrote in her diary, “He is a funny little man, talks foreign English, is very easy to get on with and certainly a tremendous artist. I have never in my life seen a man paint like that. It is almost witchcraft.”