In his lifetime, Hungarian-born Philip de László was recognised as one of the most important portrait painters of his generation. His oeuvre is currently undergoing a reassessment, and he is being appreciated again as one of the last proponents of the grand manner tradition. A display has recently been dedicated to him at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and some of his portraits have featured in exhibitions at Tate Britain (Van Dyck, 2009), and the Royal Academy of Arts ( Treasures from Budapest, 2010).
The present portrait was commissioned by Mercedes de Alvear's parents, to hang in their palatial home a few miles out of Buenos Aires, close to the estuary of Río de la Plata. When Princess Marie Louise visited Argentina in 1930, she was shown their residence and her admiration for de László's portrait was such that Sir John Millington-Drake,1 then Chargé d'Affaires at the British Embassy in Buenos Aires, wrote to the artist to convey her deep impression to him. He added: 'May I say how very much I also admired it, having know its subject well. Fernando Alvear, the younger son whom I also knew well in those days told us that it was one of your own favourite portraits It is certainly a wonderful and inspiring likeness of a girl of classic countenance and exceptional distinction'.2
De László completed Mercedes de Alvear's portrait in December 1921 in Paris, during a period of intense work. As his wife Lucy noted in her diary, 'from Friday the 18th Nov: when P. arrived in Paris till yes[ter]day morning the 19th Dec. P. painted 8 pictures - ! 4 big canvases [including] Melle Alvear'.3 He painted most of his American and South American sitters in the French capital: it is significant that during his 1921 stay, three of the large canvases mentioned by Lucy de László were of Argentinians.4
De László kept a studio in Paris at 31 rue Jean Goujon, but he also regularly painted in the duc de Guiche's hótel particulier at 42 bis Avenue Henri Martin. Armand de Guiche (later 12th Duc de Gramont), was one of his closest friends, and an artist himself. It is likely that de László used his studio in the winter of 1921, as Lucy recorded that Guiche organised a private exhibition of her husband's new portraits at his home on Monday 19th December. She described the event as a 'thundering success',5 to which 130 people came.
De László, wishing to show Mercedes's portrait to a wider public, wrote to her father in May 1924, asking if he could have it on display at a small exhibition to be held at the Franz von Riel Salon in London. It would have been particularly appropriate, as the show was instigated by a cousin of Mercedes, as explained in The Studio:6 'On the initiative of the art-loving wife of H.E. the President of the Republic, Doña Regina Pacini de Alvear,7 there has been opened, for charitable purposes, an exhibition of portraiture by contemporary masters which has many interesting features. Argentine families do not, as a rule, lend their pictures for public show, but the social success of the innovation has only been equalled by the artistic curiosity to see how men like László, Shannon, Dagnan-Bouveret, and Renoir, interpreted the Argentine grande dame. There were half-a-dozen László's on the walls...'
However, Carlos Maria de Alvear replied that he could not lend the portrait of his daughter and expressed his surprise that de László had not requested it before for an earlier exhibition at Knoedler's in Paris 1922. He wrote: '...its absence, I assure you, astonished many people who considered this portrait, as you have yourself just admitted it in your letter, as one of your most beautiful masterpieces',8 suggesting that he took offence to that omission.
María de las Mercedes de Alvear y Elortondo was born in Buenos Aires on 25 March 1896, the youngest of nine children of Carlos Mara de Alvear y Fernández Coronel (1850-1928) and Mercedes Elortondo Armstrong (1859-1940). She was named after her elder sister, María Mercedes, who had died in 1893, aged seven. The sitter's father was grandson of the famous Argentinian General Carlos María de Alvear,9 military hero of the Spanish American War of Independence and victor of the Battle of Ituzaingó in 1810. He was also first cousin of Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear,10 President of Argentina from 1922 to 1928. Carlos Mara de Alvear was a wealthy Argentinian farmer with vast extensions of land in the provinces of Buenos Aires and Santa Fe. As for Mercedes Elortondo, she was a member of a well-known aristocratic family from Buenos Aires but she grew up mostly in Paris where many Argentinians used to spend the winter.
In 1911 the sitter's father visited the International Fair in Paris with his two brothers-in-law, of the Errázuriz and Bosch families, and the three of them engaged the famous French architect, Réne Sargent11 to design substantial family residences in Buenos Aires for them: the Palacio Errázuriz is now the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Palacio Bosch is the United States Embassy in Buenos Aires and the Alvear Palace, called Sans Souci, the largest of them all and taking four years to build, was opened with great celebration in 1918.12
We are grateful to the Philip de László catalogue raisonné team for writing this catalogue entry, and to Ignacio Solveyra for his help with the biography. This portrait is to be included in the de László catalogue raisonné online (www.delaszlocatalogueraisonne.com). Please see www.delaszloarchivetrust.com or contact email@example.com for more information.
1 Whose wife Effie was painted by de László in 1920
2 DLA019-0041, op. cit.
3 Laszlo, Lucy de, 1921 diary, private collection, 20 December entry, pp. 381-382
4 De László also painted a full-length of Senorita Mercedes Santamarina, and a three-quarter length portrait of Mara Gastaga de Santamarina, The other paintings he executed were of Belgian and French sitters.
5 László, Lucy de , 1921 diary, op. cit., 20 December entry, p. 380
6 The Studio, Vol. 88 (1924), p. 234 and 237
7 Wife of Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear, President of Argentina (1922-28)
8 DLA 050-0055
9 General Carlos Maria de Alvear, the sitter's great grandfather (1789-1853)
10 Marcelo Torcuato Alvear (1868-1942)
11 Ren Sargent (1865-1927)
12 The SANS SOUCI represented the Presidential Palace in the 1996 Hollywood film adaptation of the musical, Evita. In fact, neither President Perron nor his wife, Eva ever visited the palace, which was bought by the Durini family in 1964.