Dali portrait of Mona Bismarck up for sale
It’s a wickedly wonderful dualistic portrait of a very beautiful, stylish and glamorous woman occupying an unusual space. It is underscored by a deluge of surrealist symbolism and mysticism, which in this instance is, for the most part, distinguished by something dark and unknowing. Yet it is not as sinister as one might assume at first glance.
The work in question is Salvador Dali’s Portrait of Mrs Harrison Williams, which is going under the hammer at Sotheby’s sale of surrealist art in February for the first time ever. The subject was Mona Travis Strader, more famously remembered as Mona von Bismarck.
Mona was married to Mr Williams at the time of the painting’s execution, who was one of the wealthiest men in America. The name Bismarck, for context, comes from her subsequent marriage to Count Albrecht “Eddy” von Bismarck, whom she married after Harrison passed away.
The painting, which has an estimate price of £1.5 million to £2 million, came at in interesting time in Dali’s life. He had left beautiful France under duress. This was the early forties and the Nazis seemed unstoppable. Beautiful, poetic Paris had fallen.
He headed to New York, where many of the city’s rich and powerful made themselves known to Dali, already by then one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. It was not just geographical changes that made this atypical, for Dali was beginning to see art in a different way again.
He discovered what he thought to be a completely new way of putting together a work of art, through underpainting and overpainting. What this is said to create is a more subtle work, especially in its tones.
This concept underpins the composition of the Portrait of Mrs Harrison Williams, which is a shimmering work of art largely coloured in a glossy, lavish and avaricious emerald hue.
Legend has it that Mona was originally conceived as a nude, altered after the eponymous real life figure expressed her dissatisfaction with this frank imagining of her. So Dali, contemptuously or simply out of impertinence, decided to dress her in the kind of attire that was in stark contrast to her renown as a leading fashion icon.
“This very beautiful painting by Dali, an imaginative portrait of Countess Bismarck ‘in rags’, is particularly interesting given that the Countess was passionate about clothes and wore them with remarkable elegance,” remarked Hubert de Givenchy, the French aristocrat and fashion designer who was also a close friend of Mona’s.
“Her great beauty and perfect elegance inspired courtiers of her time such as Mainboucher and Balenciaga, as well as Cole Porter – the wonderful composer who paid homage to her in many of his songs. Mona Bismarck graced her time with immense refinement, lifestyle and enormous generosity.”
A closer look then suggests whatever disdain Dali might have felt at the disapproval from Mona was not so wounding. He was far too conceited to be rebuffed, though, as someone who needed an audience to exist, to have his genius recognised as fact in the history of the world, any criticism must bite a little.
So important is the work that it ended up in the collection of the Mona Bismarck American Center for art & culture in Paris, which is part of the late Countess’ foundation. The institution, which provides a showcase for “a variety of exceptional experiences in American art and culture”, is looking to embark on a new chapter in its 25-year history, of which the proceeds from this sale will help achieve. They should, in theory, get more than is expected. The popularity of surrealist art is high, the painting has great intellectual vigour and it is completely novel to auction.
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