Philip de László is now recognised as one of the most significant portrait painters of the late 19th and early 20th Century. His great skill in capturing a sitter's likeness and his ability to transpose glamour and vitality onto a canvas often equalled that of Sargent. This portrait, 'a three-quarter length with hands' as de László would describe it, shows his work at its best. He depicts the sitter, widowed only three years previously, in a simple black dress framed against a neutral background. The combination of a limited palette and the deft fluidity of the artist's brushmarks accentuates the picture's understated elegance.
Hungarian by birth, de László spent much of his life in England but travelled extensively for his commissions. The artist made five trips to America between 1908 and 1934 and his first commission on American soil was to paint President Theodore Roosevelt. He later painted Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and their wives. On these visits he also received commissions from influential members of society and captains of industry, including Louis Wiley and Adolph Ochs of the New York Times, Frank Kellogg, George Eastman of Eastman Kodak, Andrew Mellon, and the McFadden family. De László was very well-received in America and two major exhibitions of the artist's work were staged in 1921 - one at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and the other at Knoedler's in New York.
The sitter in this portrait is Virginia Heckscher who was born in Radnor, Pennsylvania in 1902. Described by contemporary newspapers as a 'Philadelphia society girl' Virginia became engaged to Barclay McFadden in 1922 and appeared on the front pages of all the country's newspapers when her $20,000 diamond engagement ring mysteriously disappeared. Barclay McFadden was a partner in his family's firm, George H. McFadden and Brothers, one of the largest cotton brokers in the world. It had a head office in Philadelphia, agencies all over America and Europe and plantations in Memphis. The McFaddens were keen collectors and John Howard McFadden donated his extensive collection of British art to the Philadelphia Museum of Art - including a 1916 portrait of himself by de László, who also painted George and Josephine McFadden. The pioneering and philanthropic spirit of the people he met particularly appealed to de László: 'I admire these self-made men of the United States and the pride they take in their successful careers, which enables them to leave fortunes for the good of mankind and which thereby immortalise[s] them'.
It seems likely that the McFaddens met the artist through General Pershing - one of de László's most distinguished military sitters. Throughout World War One George McFadden worked with General Pershing, who awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal in 1919. An oil painting of Pershing by de László was given to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia by George McFadden in 1923. Virginia and Barclay had four children but their marriage was cut short when Barclay died following a fall from a polo pony in Horton, Cheshire, in England in 1929. Virginia returned to Pennsylvania, where she subsequently married Alfred Harrison Geary (1893-1961) and had two further children. She died in 1988 and is buried alongside her second husband at the Church of the Redeemer cemetery in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
We are grateful to Suzanne Satow and Sandra de Laszlo for their help in preparing this catalogue entry. The Hon. Mrs de Laszlo and Christopher Wentworth-Stanley are compiling the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work. Please see www.delaszloarchivetrust.com and contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.