Sargent's Successor: Philip Alexius de László

Andréa Fernandes

One hundred and forty years ago today, Philip Alexius de László (1869-1937) was born in Hungary as Laub Fülöp Elek. From a humble beginning, László grew up to become one of the most important portrait painters of the 20th century, with everyone from Pope Leo XIII to four American presidents (Roosevelt, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover) sitting for him. As his patron Lord Selborne once asked, "Has any one painter ever before painted so many interesting and historical personage?"

1. At age 7, or maybe 10, the then-Princess Elizabeth of York sat for a László portrait that her mother, the Duchess of York, had commissioned. Recently asked if she remembered the first time she sat for an artist, Queen Elizabeth recalled her sitting for László, letting slip that she thought he was a "horrible" person. The royal biographer believes she may have just meant the artist was "a bit foreign and stern." The young princess was apparently "very sleepy and restless" during her sitting, according to László's own account, but he still described her as "intelligent and full of character." (László's portrait of Princess Elizabeth is above, on the right.)

2. George Eastman had his portrait painted by László in 1916. He later gifted the artist with a 16mm motion picture camera, one of the first of its kind. The camera was used to film a black and white silent film of László painting the portrait of a fashion model. (Watch the film here.)

3. During the First World War, László, who was living in England, was interned on suspicion of being an "enemy alien." Some accounts state this suspicion arose from his letters home to his family or his having given £1 to a begging Hungarian refugee; the real story is a little more complex. One night, a "starving and unkempt" man arrived at László's house, stating he was an Austrian officer escaped from Donington Hall and asking for help. Taking pity on the man, László gave him some food and a sovereign and sent him on his way. Realizing "the folly of his actions" the next day, László reported the incident, leading to the capture of the escapee but also to an investigation of László himself. Upon discovering the artist had forwarded money to relatives back home, the Secret Service interned László for the duration of the war. After the war, official proceedings were conducted to determine if László would be allowed to retain his certificate of British nationality.

4. Prior to his internment during WWI, László was commanding £1,000 per full-length portrait, the equivalent of £100,000 today. In America, his prices were $14,000 per full-length portrait, $10,000 for a three-quarter-length portrait, and $3,000 for a sketch. Later in his career, László would occasionally request £3,000 for a portrait if he didn't want to paint that person's portrait, although once or twice they still sat for the portrait and paid the £3,000 fee.

5. "I am dead tired of painting portraits," László remarked near the end of his career. He turned his attention to other types of paintings, and desired to create a masterpiece that would "symbolize the suffering endured by millions of women during the war."

Larger versions of László's portraits of Queen Victoria of Spain (above left) and Princess Elizabeth of York (above right) are available. Fans should check out The de László Archive Trust; the collections of László's paintings in Wikimedia, the Royal Collection, the ARC, and the National Portrait Gallery; three portraits of László and this photo of László and his family; Richard Ormond's article, "De László and Sargent;" and this guide to László's portrait painting method. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.