Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Many Faces of Elsie

A friend was kind enough to send me a copy of the Christie's auction catalogue that I've been coveting, Innovators of Twentieth Century Style. (Remember that part of the reason that I've been pining for it was because of the leopard print cover!) It's really a very interesting catalogue not only because of the featured lots (furniture and accessories designed by all of the greats: Elkins, Duquette, Draper, and Haines, to name a few), but also because of the Elsie de Wolfe related items that were up for auction. This de Wolfe memorabilia included not one, not two, but eight paintings of the woman! Now that's impressive. Obviously, I'm doing something wrong because I don't have eight, two, nor even one painting of myself! No one is clamoring to paint me. Nor do I have a coterie of photographers who are begging to photograph me either. Hmmm. Well, anyway, Elsie was pretty fabulous, so I suppose that it comes as no surprise that she was immortalized in a bevy of paintings, drawings, and photographs. I guess when you helped to define modern decorating, it just comes with the territory.

Image at top: "Miss Elsie de Wolfe", 1915, Albert Sterner. Pastel on paper.

"The Blue Bird, Lady Mendl with Baron d'Erlanger at the Circus", c. 1930s, Dietz Edzard. Oil on canvas.

"Lady Mendl", c. 1940s, Marcel Vertes. Oil on canvas.

"Lady Mendl, After All", c. 1941, Baroness Catherine d'Erlanger. Oil on canvasboard.

"Lady Mendl", after Bernard Boutet de Monvel, Oil on canvas.

"Portrait Lady Mendl Infirmiere Pendant La Guerre", c. 1918, Mariette Cotton. (In case you're wondering, this painting shows de Wolfe receiving the Legion of Honor for helping wounded French soldiers in World War I.)

"Portrait, Elsie de Wolfe", c. 1992, India Ingargiola. Oil on canvas. After a photograph by Horst P. Horst.

"Elsie de Wolfe en Jardin", 1989, Julian La Trobe. Oil on canvas.


  1. John J Tackett7:42 AM

    I had not seen the 1989 Julian La Trobe portrait. Very bizarre! There must be some backstory to that as it conveys a message that seems to be very contradictory to the Elsie de Wolfe persona conveyed in books.

  2. I think I'm in love with the de Monvel portrait! Congrats on getting the auction catalog -hopefully you'll share a few treasures with us!

  3. I was fortunate enough to have met Tony Duquette, and keep up with Hutton Wilkenson and his fabulousness. Come visit little me, you've always been so inspirational. I think Elkins did my grandmother's house. I'll have to ask my Mother. People forget about the left coast!

  4. Curtis Boaz Medford10:01 AM

    I bought this catalog after your earlier posting and it is fascinating as well as having a beautiful cover. And Nick is the most delightful man and has so many books I would love to have. You are so much fun to have breakfast with in the morning, keep up the good work. I am sure there are legions who would would love to immortalize your portrait!

  5. I love the roughed parts on the first one, and I really love the third one. I like portrait painting, it really makes a painting come to life.

  6. While all of the paintings are beautiful, I love the Blue Bird most.
    Have a nice day.

  7. I cannot get enough of Elsie!

  8. Could you imagine? I wonder which was her favorite?

  9. Anonymous12:36 PM

    You will be happy to know that the Elsie painting by Edzard, hangs within a beautiful canopy Gilt Brass campaign bed covered in Vintage Fortuny...and she oversees a wonderful Library filled with many treasures that fill the imagination with Beauty.

  10. Looks like a great catalogue indeed and love the portraits - all such different treatments. The 4th reminds me of Grandma Moses, if she had done portraits, the next very Whistler-esque, and the last rather like Bacon. But the one where she has just received the Legion of Honor takes the cake - it should be called Saint Elsie Having Epiphany.

  11. Looks like a great catalogue indeed and love the portraits - all such different treatments. The 4th reminds me of Grandma Moses, if she had done portraits, the next very Whistler-esque, and the last rather like Bacon. But the one where she has just received the Legion of Honor takes the cake - it should be called Saint Elsie Having Epiphany.

  12. I'm not so sure that it was a matter of people lining up to paint or photograh Elsie--who knew perfectly well & admitted early on that she wasn't attractive--but of her zeroing in on whoever was most of-the-moment, then hiring him to document her in whatever outfit was most stylish & flattering.

    Elsie was a good decorator, but her greatest talent--her genius--was in marketing herself. If she were blogging today, she would be at the absolute head of the pack, & everyone else would be playing catch-up. That calm, placid, closed-lips smile was a mask, and as for what lay behind it, I think Thornton Wilder said it best when he has Sabina the maid describe Mrs. Antrobus in "The Skin of our Teeth":

    [S]he’d see the rest of us stretched out dead at her feet without turning a hair — that’s the truth. If you want to know anything more about Mrs. Antrobus, just go and look at a tigress... and look hard.

    That being said, Elsie created some really pretty rooms & hired a lot of very talented artists overthe course of her career. I think the de Monvel portrait is my own favorite, although I wonder what happened to the origial painting, since this one is just a copy.

    The last one, obviously, was painted posthumously, from a photo, and while I don't much care for this example of Julian LaTrobe's work, I think his portraits of rooms Elsie decorated--rooms which we otherwise would only know from vintage photos--are wonderful & vibrant, with the artful illusion of sponataneity that you see in John Singer Sargent's work. It's too bad La Trobe isn't more widely known.

    1. Anonymous6:08 PM

      i just bought a LA TROBE and I
      cant seem to find anything out him other then he and i have a very similar story ........... i wished i could make contact with someone that knows him or could tell me things about my painting

    2. Possibly your painting is by Julian La Trobe Bateman originally from Tennessee...an amazing artist and person...I had the pleasure of studying with him in Rome 1984-85 at RISD...sadly he passed too young in 1994 I believe.

    3. Cheryl, Where in Tennessee was he from?

    4. I just purchased a La Trobe portrait and would love to find more information about him. Online searches have only resulted in one LA Times article and the contents of this blog. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

    5. Anonymous1:37 AM

      Julian was my very first best friend in life as we lived next door to each other rowing up in Memphis Tennessee. His family had moved to Memphis from Atlanta. His father worked for BOAC and his mother as a homemaker (both parents were British which meant Sundays at the Bateman's was extra special with a formal sit-down meal in their dining room). We met at age 5 and were inseparable as his father referred to us affectionately as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum from Alice in Wonderland. Julian and I would spend hours drawing together and even then I knew he was destined to be an artist (I became an Art Director and Creative Director). His father suffered an in-home accident which left him paralyzed for life and unable to work in his previous capacity. His father began to draw and paint which he did from the patio of the home addition they had built. It was clear that Julian didn't fall too far from the talent tree. Julian was a very much a free spirit and always managed to find some sort of mischief along the way even with kids bullying him along the way (I got into many fights protecting him.) My family moved away when I was 10 and Julian and I lost touch with the distance. Upset that Julian never responded to my letters, I have a lifetime of regret and sorrow that I never returned Julian's phone call when he reached out to me just before his death. The world truly lost an amazing person and artist with so much more to share and give.

  13. I think you have a great face for a portrait and like the auction catalog if you wish it, it may come!

  14. Jennifer !

    How interesting to see all of these images of Elsie, a person I often daydream about. Have you been to the Frick in NY and seen the rooms she created there ? Yes, we must find a painter for your first portrait...

  15. Interesting how different she looks from portrait to portrait. Even more fascinating is how different she looks from photograph to photograph. No-one ever called her a beauty, and, strangely enough to my mind, her fabled chic often does not come across in photos. I rue that auction in California in which the De Wolfe Foundation dispersed so much of the ephemeri connected with her life- photo albums, inventories, correspondence. I assumed that it would all bring "sky high" prices and didn't bother to bid. In that pre-internet era, though, the sale attracted not a great deal of interest and prices realized for most things were well within estimate. I only wish that most of it had been acquired by a museum like the Cooper Hewitt to be made available to students of interior design and social history. Such, alas, does not appear to have been the case.

  16. I thought exactly the same thing, Magnus. Maybe it's only because for years I worked as an archivist, but I was appalled to see how much historic material was dispered to the winds, and for so little gain. Then again, it's not as though Elsie didn't do the exact same thing with Elisabeth Marbury's estate.

  17. I can't help but think how fabulous that kitchen with all the blue and white would have looked painted red/flower pot. It would have been sensational!