De Lszló recalled his first meeting with the sitter in Budapest, at the house of his good friend, and renowned Hungarian violinist, Jenö Hubay: "I was so fascinated by her personality and her art that I asked her that very evening to allow me to make a study of her. I much enjoyed the hours while she was sitting for me, and I did one portrait for her, and one for myself, which I'm glad to say I still possess." The latter is thought to be the present portrait, painted early in 1901, showing the sitter as the artist had seen her perform during a rare return from retirement, "...in a simple black dress, with her calm and dignified manner, her beautiful dark eyes and deep black hair, apparently unconscious of her eager audience." In the eyes of the artist the Italian-born singer was the perfect representation of a grande dame and one of the "few women who are blessed with great talent and great intelligence, and she had the typical Italian beauty and temperament."
Following her sittings for the present portrait, the sitter wrote the following quotation from Leonardo da Vinci's Treatise on Painting in the artist's sitters' book: "The good painter has to paint two principal things, that is to say, man and the intention of his mind. That figure is most praiseworthy which best expresses through its actions the passion of the mind." In 1903 de László made a third portrait of the sitter in Vienna and at the same time painted her friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907).
Alice Barbi was born into a family of musicians in Modena in 1858. Her early proficiency on the violin marked her as a prodigy and she received training from her father, Enrico, and later from Carlo Verardi. In 1876 she became a member of the "First European Ladies' Orchestra" with whom she gave her first solo-performance during a concert-tour in Sweden. She was also later a conductor of the all-female orchestra, the "Wiener Damenkapelle".
It was as a concert singer that Alice Barbi earned her international reputation. She had only started her singing education at the age of twenty-two and developed into a fine mezzo-soprano. Her first performance took place in Milan on 2 April 1882 and was followed by concerts all over Italy. She first appeared in London on 24 June 1884, followed by performances in Russia, Germany and Vienna in 1890, where Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) greatly admired her performance of his compositions.
A deep friendship developed between the singer and composer and it was Brahms who accompanied her on her farewell recital in Vienna in 1893, before her marriage to Baron Boris Wolff von Stomersee (1850-1917) in 1904. He was a senior official at the Russian court of Tsar Nicholas II. Thereafter she divided her time with her husband and their two daughters, Alexandra and Olga, between Vienna, Budapest and their estate of Stomersee in what is today Latvia.
At the outbreak of the Russian Revolution the family were in St Petersburg where soon afterwards the Baron died. Alice and her daughters succeeded in escaping on the last Red Cross convoy permitted to leave the city en route to the port city of Riga.
In London, several years later, the sitter met an old admirer, the Italian diplomat Pietro Tomasi Marchese della Torretta (1873-1962), whom she married in 1920. After the Marchese was dismissed by Mussolini as Italian Ambassador in London the couple moved to Rome where Alice died in 1948.
We are grateful to Alexandra Grabec for writing the catalogue entry for this portrait, which will be included in the Philip de László catalogue raisonn, currently presented in progress online: www.delaszlocatalogueraisonne.com