* SOMOV, KONSTANTIN
, signed and dated 1925.
Pencil, watercolour and gouache on laid paper, 37 by 29 cm.
Provenance: Important private collection, Europe.
Russian Art Evening, Sotheby’s London, 26 November 2007, lot 16.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Private collection, Europe.
Konstantin Somov’s Masquerade is painted in the spirit of fêtes galantes, so beloved by the artist, with their portrayal of commedia dell’arte actors. The picture offered here for auction depicts a noisy carnival event – where faces familiar to the artist’s contemporaries of theatrical divas and personalities from the society columns – are glimpsed amongst the whirling couples dancing the foxtrot. The ballroom, drowning in musical merriment, rolls out before the viewer like a frame from a film in its interplay of people and “masks”, of real life and superficial clowning.
This work, created by Konstantin Somov in 1925, belongs to the so-called American period of his life. He had set out for the USA in September 1924, in connection with the famous Exhibition of Russian Art, but stayed on until May 1925. The artist was captivated by the exuberant atmosphere of New York, with its colourful advertisements, the roar of automobile engines and the incredible pace of life. In letters to his sister, Somov shares his impressions of numerous vernissages, of theatrical productions that were opening all the time and of the stars on Broadway. This was also the time when the artist started working with the publishers of Vanity Fair, for which he designed a large number of covers. He enjoyed creating high society illustrations which frequently graced the pages of the fashion magazines and soon he started to work for several similar publications in Europe.
In 1925, two months before he left New York for Paris, Somov wrote to his sister in Leningrad: “On Monday, I worked all day long, from 12 midday to 12 midnight. I decided to finish a few covers in advance and to show them to the editors of the Vanity Fair magazine (K.A. Somov. Pisma. Dnevniki. Suzhdenia sovremennikov, Moscow, 1979, p. 269).
Browsing through the pages of the famous society magazine Vanity Fair of 1925 (Vanity Fair. Portraits of an Age, 1914–1936, London, Thames and Hudson, 1983), it is easy to identify the models for the protagonists of Somov’s Masquerade. Thus, in the foreground of the picture, on the right, we can distinguish the renowned husband-and-wife team of Broadway royalty of the 1920s, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne; whereas on the left, there are the siblings Fred and Adele Aster, the inimitable star dancers. In the background to the centre, there is the actor John Barrymore in profile, his pensive, stern expression complemented by his stage costume of Hamlet, the role he performed to great acclaim in the hugely successful 1925 production. Just in front of him, barely recognisable and dressed as the Oriental beauty is the famous Ruth St. Denis, widely acknowledged as the founder of modern dance. To the right of John Barrymore, is the stage actress Grace Johns, her hair assembled in her signature extravagant high coiffure.
Masquerade did not make it to the Vanity Fair cover but a revised version of this work, depicting the models in historical costume, was published in 1926 on the cover of the German magazine Die Dame. This version is now in a private collection.
The work offered here is executed on laid paper with a particular type of lines used by Somov for his New York works. The artist’s signature (containing one letter “f”) is also typical of that period. In the archives of the State Tretyakov Gallery, there is a work Landscape. Overnight Cattle Grazing, dated 1925, which has similar features and allows to attribute the offered work to the same period.
The indisputable artistic merits elevate Somov’s watercolours well beyond the genre of magazine graphics: rather, they were treated as independent art works which have their prominent place in the artist’s ouevre.