Marchesa Casati (painting)
John had been attached to the Canadian forces as a war artist during the First World War, and was hired to make record of the Canadian participation at the Paris Peace Conference that year. While painting Robert Borden, 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, 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."
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
- Allemang, John. "AGO exhibits a beguiling portrait of a marchesa 'The viewer becomes the lover'" The Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ont.: May 29, 1987. pg. D.6
- "Art By Numbers The Marchesa Casati, oil, 1919." Toronto Star. Jan 22, 2000. pg. 1
- Art Gallery of Ontario: Selected Works. Art Gallery of Ontario, 1990 pg. 190
- Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati by Scot D. Ryersson, Michael Orlando Yaccarino, Quentin Crisp. Page 93
- Fulford Robert, "My love affair with portraits;" National Post. Don Mills, Ont.: May 8, 2004. pg. RB.5