Ava Alice Muriel Astor (1902-1956), daughter of businessman and real estate tycoon Colonel John Jacob Astor IV (1864-1912), and Ava Lowle Willing Astor, later Lady Ribblesdale (1868-1959), was known for her wit and rapacious intellect. Her father perished in the sinking of the RMS Titanic when Alice was only 10 years old, leaving her with a trust fund of $5,000,000 – roughly $125,000,000 today. Raised mostly in England, Alice cultivated enduring friendships with many British artists and was a devoted patron of the arts, supporting Sadler’s Wells Ballet in London, as well as New York City Ballet.
Described by the lyricist John Latouche (1914-1956) ‘like a more attenuated Virginia Woolf’ (as quoted in H. Pollack, The Ballad of John Latouche, New York, 2017, p. 344), Alice’s icy beauty, accentuated by her ebony hair and mournful eyes, was captured by the most popular society portraitists of the day, including Savelii Sorin (1878-1953) and Sir Cecil Beaton (1904-1980). She was married four times: to Prince Serge Obolensky (1924-1932); to Raimund von Hofmannsthal (1933-1939); to British journalist, Philip Harding (1940-1945); and to British architect David Pleydell-Bouverie (1946-1952).
Completed in 1938, Tchelitchew’s portrait is perhaps the most bewitching and psychologically revealing likeness of the enigmatic heiress. With downcast eyes and pensive expression, suggesting a certain distance or disengagement with the artist and the viewer, Alice is rendered other-worldly, absorbed in thought. Enshrined in tomb-like surroundings, with veined marble walls, the sitter’s status as a statue or figure of idolatry is further emphasised by her smooth, flawless skin.
Painted at the height of Tchelitchew’s powers, Portrait of Ava Alice Muriel Astor (1902-1956), has much in common with other, iconic portraits of Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), Ruth Ford (1911-2009) and Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996) executed during the same period, 1936-1938. In the autumn of 1935, Tchelitchew made his first visit to Italy and was influenced profoundly by art of the Italian Trecento and early Quattrocento. Combining anatomic verity and a harmonised colour palette in a distinctly 'Tchelitchevian' manner, his portraits from this period are immensely powerful and evocative, even emblematic.
Whereas Dame Edith Sitwell wields a quill and paper, indicating her vocation, in Tchelitchew’s portrait from 1937; arguably, Alice grasps a feather less decisively in her portrait, leaving the symbol open to interpretation – is the implement a quill or, contextualised with the egg pendant and eight-point star, an allusion to the ancient Egyptian symbol of the Winged Kneph? Tchelitchew’s fascination with esotericism was matched by Alice’s interest in the occult. Prior to her marriage to Serge Obolensky, Alice was part of the Astor Party that visited the now-infamous excavation site of Tutankhamun on 11 January 1924, one week after Howard Carter and Arthur C. Mace had opened all the doors of the sepulchral shrines, allowing the quartzite sarcophagus to be viewed for the first time.
Another comparison can be made with Tchelitchew’s 1938 portrait of Constance Askew, wife of Kirk Askew (1903-1974), who managed the New York branch of the London firm, Durlacher Brothers. Like Askew’s, Alice’s hair cascades unnaturally over her shoulders, immediately creating parallels with Tchelitchew’s zoomorphic and anthropomorphic landscapes. In this way, Tchelitchew’s encoded portraits render his subjects preternatural, something more (or less) than human. It is perhaps fitting, then, that Tchelitchew also chose to immortalise Alice in the monumental Phenomena (1936-1938, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), his controversial masterwork and lurid depiction of hell:
'But those freaks! They are many of my best friends, what a hell! Here is Gertrude Stein and there is Alice Toklas, and Alice Astor because she bought a picture of mine, and Alice De Lamar because she lent me her house to live in, lots of Alices and they are all going to be so furious! […] All the people in my picture are great, and such genial friends. But they are freaks because growths have grown on them by accident. That is the accident of growing.' (P. Tchelitchew in a letter to the art dealer Julien Levy (1906-1981), as quoted in L. Kirstein, Tchelitchew, Santa Fe, 1994, p. 75).