The Marchesa Casati
is a portrait of Luisa Casati
Luisa, Marquise Casati Stampa di Soncino was an eccentric Italian heiress, muse, and patroness of the arts in early 20th century Europe...
by Augustus John
Augustus Edwin John OM, RA, was a Welsh painter, draughtsman, and etcher. For a short time around 1910, he was an important exponent of Post-Impressionism in the United Kingdom....
, currently housed in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario
Under the direction of its CEO Matthew Teitelbaum, the AGO embarked on a $254 million redevelopment plan by architect Frank Gehry in 2004, called Transformation AGO. The new addition would require demolition of the 1992 Post-Modernist wing by Barton Myers and Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg...
(AGO) in Toronto.
The painting was done in 1919. John had been attached to the Canadian forces as a war artist
A war artist depicts some aspect of war through art; this might be a pictorial record or it might commemorate how "war shapes lives." War artists have explored a visual and sensory dimension of war which is often absent in written histories or other accounts of warfare.- Definition and context:A...
during the First World War, and was hired to make record of the Canadian participation at the Paris Peace Conference
The Paris Peace Conference was the meeting of the Allied victors following the end of World War I to set the peace terms for the defeated Central Powers following the armistices of 1918. It took place in Paris in 1919 and involved diplomats from more than 32 countries and nationalities...
that year. While painting Robert Borden
Sir Robert Laird Borden, PC, GCMG, KC was a Canadian lawyer and politician. He served as the eighth Prime Minister of Canada from October 10, 1911 to July 10, 1920, and was the third Nova Scotian to hold this office...
, the Canadian Prime Minister, and other dignitaries, he used the opportunity to join the Parisian artistic and cultural community. He met Casati at a party hosted in Paris by a mutual friend, Maria Ruspoli, and the two became lovers. John did three paintings of the Marchesa, but the AGO one is the best known.
At this time Casati had already bedded a number of famous artists, and had been a subject for many others. Rather than present her in one of the mythological guises other artists had, John chose to try and capture her flamboyant, but at the same time guarded personality. It depicts the Marchesa with fiery red hair, highlighted by a muted background, that might depict a stormy view of the Italian Alps near her home. The painting was originally full length, but John cut it to only show the upper part of her body.
It was purchased by the AGO in 1934 from Sir Evan Charteris
The Hon. Sir Evan Edward Charteris was an English biographer, barrister and arts administrator...
, chairman of the National Portrait Gallery, for 1,500 pounds. Baron Duveen praised the purchase: "I consider it to be an astounding masterpiece of our time. It is no exaggeration to say that this will live forever." It has become one of the most popular pieces in the AGO, and one of the best known pieces by the general public. In 1987 the painting was the centerpiece of an exhibition at the AGO focusing on the Marchesa Casati. Toronto writer Lynn Crosbie wrote the poem "Colour Me Blood Red," for Casati, and her image appears on Crosbie's first collection of poems, Miss Pamela's Mercy
(Coach House Press, 1992.) Toronto novelist Russell Smith later used the portrait as well for the cover of his novel Muriella Pent.
Robert Fulford has extolled the portrait:
"One day around 1944, I fell in love with that portrait. I was in a group of school kids being escorted through what was then the Art Gallery of Toronto, now the Art Gallery of Ontario. Our guide stopped before John's portrait. Its romantic intensity caught me. Instantly, it became the first notable painting in my life. John, one of the marchesa's many lovers, saw her as a sexy, dangerous hellion. Exhibitionism was her art form. By entering a room, she turned everyone else into a spectator. Her lovers were her favourite audience. In the most pleasurable way, the marchesa disturbed my Toronto-reared sensibility. English-speaking Canada was then narrowly Protestant, and feelings were kept at a suitable distance. Our culture carried emotional reserve to an extreme -- we were at the lunatic fringe of mental health, so to speak. In this stifling atmosphere, my affair with the marchesa turned me into a lover of portraits."
The Beat poet and novelist Jack Kerouac
Jean-Louis "Jack" Lebris de Kerouac was an American novelist and poet. He is considered a literary iconoclast and, alongside William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, a pioneer of the Beat Generation. Kerouac is recognized for his spontaneous method of writing, covering topics such as Catholic...
, in his San Francisco Blues
(1954), included a number of poems inspired by this picture. The 74th Chorus reads -
Is a living doll
Pinned on my Frisco
Skid row wall
Her eyes are vast
Her skin is shiny
And wild red hair
Shoulders sweet & tiny
Sings the sea
In the Augustus John