When is a Painting Not a Painting?

When it is a person. Wait. What? Okay, here’s what I mean. Back in the Summer of 2014 I attended an auction at the warehouse of a once prominent gallery. I was there for the picture frames and I bought about 250 of them. One of the last lots of the auction was a heavy cardboard tube that supposedly contained a rolled up painting. So, being the impulsive gambler and dreamer that I am, I simply kept my hand in the air till the lot was mine. Now I had to hope that there actually was a painting in it. I’ll skip over the excitement of loading a rental truck with 250 frames and then unloading all of them and get right to the good stuff... So, back at my showroom, I carefully removed the canvas from the tube and began to unroll it on my eight foot work table. And I unrolled it. And unrolled it. It was massive. A face was staring at me. A young man in uniform holding a cigarette in his hand staring right at me. Quickly I looked for a signature and found it only after the light caught it just the right way. I first saw a monogram of a crown and then the hyphenated last name Eristoff-Kazak. Fantastic. A signature often makes the research that much easier. Boy, was I in for a surprise. Turns out Eristoff-Kazak was actually Russian Princess Marie Eristoff-Kazak (born Etlinger Mariya Vasilevna later using the names Mary Kazak, Maria Eristova and Marie Eristoff Kazak) a painter of the Russian aristocracy. She was born in Saint Petersburg in 1857 and studied art with the Hungarian born court painter Mihaly Zichy. In 1887, Marie Etlinger married Georgian Prince Dmitry Eristavi. Mr. Zichy brought the Princess to Paris for the first time in 1890, she would later move there permanently in the early 1890’s and become a fixture on the Paris art scene. Her reputation grew and she became known for her portraiture of the Russian aristocracy visiting or living in Paris. The Princess had a long career in Paris, while also sending her work for exhibition to London and St. Petersburg. She died there in 1934. So, now that I’ve learned a bit about the artist I can begin the process of discovering the identity of the sitter. I’d like to digress for a moment and share a similar story about a portrait, a discovery and a story...

Earlier in the year, Colin Gleadell who is an art world reporter for the past 27 years and a regular contributor to many publications including writing a weekly column for The Daily Telegraph’s Art Sales page, reported on a portrait that sold at an auction in the countryside of London. While this would not normally merit inclusion into one of Mr. Gleadell’s columns, this was no ordinary portrait. The artist, Ambrose McEvoy - a London society painter who died in 1927, never really achieved high results in the auction world. Yet this portrait of an unknown woman (which carried a presale estimate of just $1067.) would bring $62,846. Whoa. They say, it just takes two to make a record. Boy were they right. But why all the interest you ask? And just who bought this work? I’ll tell you. Actually Mr. Gleadell coaxed the answers from the buyer, none other than Mr. Philip Mould a London gallery owner specializing in portraits. It seems that Mr. Mould has become quite well known for uncovering the identities of the sitters of the portraits he purchases. And this one was no different. The sitter was a Ms. Lois Sturt a British silent movie star who was born to a Baron in 1900 and died in 1937. Described by her biographer William Cross as a “wild child” and “the brightest of the bright young things”. There’s more to this story and if you want to read it, click here for the full article in The Telegraph. Just make sure to come back here and read why I thought it would be important to tell you about this story...

Now back to the painting in my inventory. Where were we? Oh, right. The Russian Princess artist. Seems she was quite the bohemian artist for being a Princess. Always giving of her work and her time. Living the life of an artist in Paris during the early 20th Century. But just how did she come to paint this portrait. And just who is he. I’ll tell you. Because Mr. Mould is not the only one who can uncover the identity of a sitter in a portrait. Turns out he is none other than Henry Howard Houston Woodward, part of the very prominent Houston Woodward family of Philadelphia (by way of Wilkes-Barre, originally from Connecticut). In 1917, Henry was enrolled at Yale University and set to graduate as part of the Class of 1919. It was during February of that year when Henry volunteered for World War I. He was shipped out to France just two months later. The ship carried him along with hundreds of other volunteers, cargo, trucks, supplies and more. The cross Atlantic journey was slow and Henry was chomping at the bit to arrive in France. Shortly after arrival, Henry’s section of drivers - the Ambulance 13 corps were placed on the front lines in some of WWI’s bloodiest battles. Henry’s bravery, intelligence and determination were quickly recognized and rewarded by his superiors. Henry wanted more responsibility and more action. He had begun training to become a pilot for the French and was quickly excelling in his classes. His hard work was rewarded with extra time off and he received additional days to spend in Paris. And this is where our story takes a turn.

It was in Paris where Russian Baron Eugene Fersen was escaping the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution serving as the head of a Russian Mission. The Baron, born in St. Petersburg in 1873, was the eldest son of a Grand Duchess who was a mistress to (it is reported) Czar Nicholas II (you know, the Bloody Czar...). He was quietly living in Paris and working on his manifesto which would later become the Light Bearers Society and the Science of Being (the Baron and his mother later moved to the United States, bought a gilded age mansion in Seattle owned by an imprisoned con man and used that as the headquarters for their society until his death in 1954). But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Paris. The Baron was close friends with the Princess and offered a few rooms in his apartment for her to use as a painting studio. It was around this time that the Baron met Henry. The exact details of their first encounter are not known, but we do know that the two shared a very close and personal relationship. The Baron was quick to recognize Henry’s first rate character and Henry was enamored by the tales the Baron would tell of his family, his life in Russia and all that the Baron promised him after the war. The two spent as much time together as the war would allow. And it was on one of those weekends together when Henry met the Princess. She, too, recognized something special in Henry and asked if he’d like to have his portrait painted. She saw in him “an Egyptian face, ancient Egypt, that is, not modern”. The Princess painted Henry with “a classic mouth, long, straight nose, high cheek bones, and long sphinx eyes!”. And Henry knew that the Princess was “really a genius” and was “about the best portrait painter in Europe now, and in France for certain”. You could say that the two really hit it off. Henry had asked his family back home in Philadelphia for the 5000 Francs (about $1000 at the time) to pay for the portrait and said that “it would be a good souvenir in case anything did happen to me.”

Sadly Henry’s words would be prophetic. Just two weeks after having his portrait painted1918, Henry’s plane would be shot down over the small town of Montdidier, France. It was not until 1919 that the plane would be discovered. Henry’s family travelled to Montdidier sometime in 1920 to erect a monument to their son, help to rebuild a cathedral in the town that had been damaged in the war and to collect his personal belongings. This painting was among them. Once the belongings arrived back in the States, the painting was to remain rolled up. Forgotten. If not for that auction, Henry’s story would also have been forgotten. Now it will live on forever thanks to the Power of Art. Oh, and some detective work.