Recent Portraits by Mr. P. A. de László, by Alfred Lys Baldry, The International Studio, Vol. LIX, No. 235 (September 1916), pp. 145-156.
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Recent Portraits by Mr. P. A. de László 
by Alfred Lys Baldry
The International Studio, Vol. LIX, No. 235 (September 1916), pp. 145-156.

There are at the present time a great many painters who never seem to remember that an oil picture does not remain through the lapse of years without undergoing a ripening process which gives to it an appearance very unlike that by which it was distinguished when it first left the easel. They forget apparently that the old canvas, as we see it now, owes almost as much of its impressive effect to time, dirt, and varnish - the greatest of the Old Masters, as they have been called - as it does to the long dead craftsman by whom it was produced. So little do they think about the inevitable changes which their work must sooner or later undergo, that it is common enough to find them painting today pictures which have all the sombre obscurity of the ripest old age, and which are so difficult to decipher that they might almost have come from the prehistoric past. When time, dirt, and varnish have worked their will on these pictures, what will remain? The colour will be gone, the artistís handling will be unintelligible, the labour he has expended in realising his ideas will be wasted and thrown away.

 

How much wiser are the men who work with an eye to the future; who are mindful, that is to say, of the influences by which their paintings will be affected as time goes on. These men arrange their technical methods with a wise prevision of what is to come; by judicious forethought they avoid the risk of having the artistic intention of their productions prematurely obscured, and by intelligent application of executive processes they keep their art alive for the satisfaction of posterity. They know what allowances to make for the maturing of their work, and this knowledge guides them in their practice, leading their effort always in the right direction and saving it from any waste of purpose. 

 

It is because he has in a very high degree this power of looking ahead that Mr. de László holds so prominent a position among the artists of our time. In all the qualities of his work there is evident the intention that his pictures shall live, and that they shall be as convincing in the future as they are to-day - that in all matters which he can control they shall be permanent evidences of his capacity and lose none of their authority when they are tested by time. There is nothing haphazard about his methods; always deliberate and carefully considered, they are directed inflexibly towards the realization of a pictorial aim which is unusually consistent and in which a full sense of the responsibility he owes to his art is invariably displayed. Always, too, they are pointed at an ultimate result, not at some momentary achievement which may or may not have the possibilities of permanence.  

Look, for instance, at the manner of his brushwork - it is very expressively displayed in such portraits as those of The Duchess of Wellington [1915], General the Earl of Cavan [1912], and Colonel E. M. House [1916]. The sharpness and clear-cut decision of his touch, the almost uncompromising directness of his handling, and the clean directness of his executive treatment will remain as salient features of his paintings so long as any of the paint he has put upon the canvas is left. Time, the darkening of tones, chemical changes in the pigments, all those happenings which attend the maturing of a work of art, will never destroy the vitality of his initial statement. At most they will only soften and make more suggestive the pictorial definition upon which he insists; the meaning of what he has done will not be lost and the strength of his intentions will continue to be apparent through all the modifications that years may cause in the original aspect of his work.   

There is not a little satisfaction in the idea that the art of Mr. de László has this solid foundation of mechanical fitness - that its mechanism is rightly directed and its method inherently sound - certainly he is too important an artist to be easily spared. It would be a serious loss indeed if the same fate were to overtake him which has already befallen some of our modern artists, whose paintings through want of foresight and technical understanding have in a few years suffered a full measure of the decay that centuries only could bring to a properly handled performance. For he has played during his career a rarely distinguished part as a pictorial commentator on contemporary history and he has painted an extraordinary succession of portraits of great personages and of notable people who have taken their fair share in the affairs of the world. It is very greatly to be desired that these portrait should last and continue to be available many generations hence for the information of students of humanity and for the enlightenment of the historian. There is much that gives food for thought to be read in the faces of men who have shaped the fortunes of a nation, and it is only by the art of the portrait-painter that the chance of summing up a personality in this way can be prolonged after the man himself has disappeared from the stage.

 

[p. 146]

 

But there is another reason too why we should rejoice that there is nothing ephemeral or untrustworthy in Mr. de Lászlóís work - an aesthetic reason. Even if he had painted no one of distinction, even if all his portraits had been of ordinary, everyday people whose virtues and characteristics had never become known beyond the limits of the family circle, he would still be an artist with the highest claims to consideration. The personal note in everything he does is very strongly pronounced, he has a marked individuality and a clearly defined style, and he is a curiously intimate observer of character. He possesses in fact all those fundamental qualifications by the aid of which the portrait-painter rises from the level of a mere recorder of likenesses to the rank of a masterly interpreter of the subtleties of the human type. In even the most obscure person he would find something artistically interesting, something worthy of his skill as a painter, and something which would help him to achieve an expressive result - unless indeed he were so unfortunate as to be confronted with a face which reflected absolute vacuity of mind, and in that distressing situation even the greatest of the world masters might be forgiven for failure.

 

Then again, he is a particularly able draughtsman, with a profound understanding of construction and a keen appreciation of grace of line. There is never anything tentative or indecisive in his drawing, never a hint that he has hesitated over the definition of a form. He has obviously full confidence in himself, but it is equally obviously a confidence born of thorough knowledge and matured by persistent practice, not the empty conceit of the facile worker who trusts to showy cleverness to conceal the actual insufficiency of his equipment. Mr. de László succeeds in drawing finely because he has learned first to see correctly and has then trained his hand and eye to work in harmony, and because he knows before he puts a touch on his canvas just what that touch has to contribute to the general scheme of his picture. There is no need for him to fumble or to set down vague marks which can be labored later on into something which professes to have a meaning, neither is there any need for him to explain by small additions what the mark of his brush really signifies; his first touch does what he intends it should do, and expresses what he wants it to express, and from the first touch to the last each one carries the picture surely on to its eventual completion. But it is only the draughtsman who knows thoroughly what he is about who can work in this systematic and methodical manner, or who can deal with a picture as if it were a sort of map of exactly placed lines; swift disaster would await the man who tried to use this method before he had learned how to see, or who attempted to apply this system without having discovered the foundation on which it rests.

 

However, it is not only because of his shrewdness of observation and his admirable skill as a draughtsman that Mr. de László is to be accounted an artist of such notable capacity; he is, as well, an exceedingly persuasive and sensitive colourist and he has a vital decorative instinct. His portraits are always important decorations - and in this they are true to the best traditions of this art practice - dignified in design an planned with sincere regard for the right adjustment of masses and the rhythmical arrangement of lines. In each of them there is a pattern which fills the canvas in a peculiarly satisfying way and in the working out of which the artist gives free rein to his inventive ingenuity and his natural feeling for style. It is not enough for him to record the character or to realise the personality of his sitter, he must make that personality the motive of a decoration which emphasizes and illustrates the sitterís character, and that decoration becomes as much an essential of the portrait as the sitterís face. 

 

This is perhaps the direction in which Mr. de Lászlóís art has developed most during recent years. His executive powers, always remarkable, have gained undoubtedly in flexibility and in responsiveness to the demands he makes upon them, but if later portraits - like those of Mrs. Sandys [1916], The Duchess of Portland [1912], and The Right Hon. A. J. Balfour [1914] - are compared with those he painted in the earlier stages of his career, the gain in breadth of artistic vision will be even more apparent. But, after all, with an artist of his temperament, progress of this kind was to be expected; he is endowed with too keen a sense of the importance of portraiture to leave untried any of the possibilities which it offers to him.

 

At the same time, in testing these possibilities he never lapses into vague or aimless experiment; he has too stable a mind and too serious a conviction to play tricks with his principles. What he seeks, really, is to widen the scope of his art without changing its character, to make more emphatic the message that throughout his life he has been trying to deliver, and not to confuse his utterance by sounding any discordant note. To express more fully and more convincingly the artistic creed in which he believes is his only aim.

 

A. L. Baldry

(Editor's Note: The article was accompanied by the following illustrations:)
 
 

p. 147 - The Right Hon. Arthur James Balfour, M.P. [1914]

p. 148 - Miss Muriel Wilson [1916]

p. 149 - The Duchess of Portland [1912]

p. 150 - General the Earl of Cavan [1912]

p. 151 - Mrs. Elinor Glyn [1915]

p. 153 - Colonel E. M. House [1916]

p. 154 - Mrs. Sandys [1916]

p. 155 - The Duchess of Wellington [1915]

p. 156 - Two Indian Officers [1916]

 
(All the illustrations were in black and white, except that of Mrs. Glyn.)

Notes 
 

 
 
 
 
 


By:  Natasha Wallace
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