Donna Maria Ruspoli was born on 18 May 1888, the only daughter and youngest child of Prince Luigi Ruspoli (1843-1904), mayor of Rome, and Countess Clelia Balboni (died 1922). In early 1907, after the death of her husband in 1904, the widow Princess Clelia Ruspoli was introduced to the recently widowed Agénor, 11th Duc de Gramont. However when invited for dinner, it was upon her seventeen-year old daughter Maria that Agénor set his sights. The pair were married on 1 August at the Holy Virgin Chapel of the Church of St Peter at Chaillot, in Paris. She was eighteen, he fifty-six. None of his four children by a previous marriage to Marguerite-Alexandrine von Rothschild attended the ceremony. There were two children of the marriage, Gabriel (born 1908) and Gratien (born 1909).
Maria Ruspoli was said to be one of the most beautiful women of her time, but it seems that she had 'the animal sensuality of a courtesan from Antiquity' (F. Bac, op. cit.), and, much to Agénor's despair, took many lovers, including the Duke of Westminster, Gabriele d'Annunzio and the adventurer Aldo Naldi (with whom she entertained Paul Morand, Jean Cocteau, and many others at his apartment in rue des Ternes in Paris). Following Agénor's death on 30 January 1925, she spent the majority of her time at Vigoleno, a 10th Century castle near Milan, which she had bought in 1922. There she restored a small theatre which welcomed illustrious visitors including Max Ernst, D'Annunzio, Jean Cocteau and Arthur Rubinstein. On 29 July 1934, she married François Hugo, one of Victor Hugo's grandsons, after which she returned to Paris and sold Vigoleno Castle. She later moved to New York, where she worked at the Jolas Gallery and dedicated herself to a beauty institute. She possessed one of the finest private collections of French Impressionists, which she later bequeathed to the nation. Maria Hugo died in August 1976.
For this portrait, de László has employed unusual shades of green and purple not often seen in his palette. This, and the swathe of material draped about her head, may be said to reflect the original tastes of his sitter, well known as a fashion icon, whose olive skinned beauty well suited these colours.
We are grateful to Dr Caroline Corbeau-Parsons and the de László Archive Trust for their assistance in cataloguing this lot, which appears as work number 12810 in the online de László archive.