Federico Beltrán Massés

(Güira de Melena, Cuba, 1885 – Barcelona, 1949)

Portrait
Oil on canvas
100 x 80 cm.
Signed lower-left: F. Beltran Masses

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Federico Beltran Masses was renowned at his time as a master of colour and the psychological portrait, as well as a painter of seductive images of women. Born in Cuba, he was the only child of a spanish army officer stationed in the colony and a spanish – cuban lady, whose family had lived in the Island for nearly two centuries[1]. When Beltran was seven years old, his family returned to Spain to live in Barcelona, where he spent his youth begining his artistic training in the well-regarded Escola de la Llotja[2].

He later moved to Madrid, where he entered in Joaquín Sorolla’s studio as a pupil. In 1911, Beltran married Irene Narezo Dragoné, a painter as well, of a distinguished family and good economic position. During these years, our artist took part in the spanish National Exhibitions, standing out his participation in 1915 when his painting La Maja marquesa was condemned for recalling the lesbianism[3]. After this bad experience, Beltran decided to move to Paris in 1916 for activating his career in the international market. Our painter would be settled in the french capital for thirty years, becoming there one of the most celebrated portrait painters during that period[4].

In 1924 Beltrán was invited to exhibit at the Wildenstein galleries in New York; more commercially successful exhibitions followed in Palm Beach and Los Angeles, both in 1925. Indeed, Beltran Masses’ success in Hollywood helped his career greatly, specially because of the acquaintances he made through friendship with the actor Rodolfo Valentino (who ordered different portraits to the painter, settling him at his home), as well as the actress Marion Davies and her lover of William Randolph Hearst (who purchased four paintings by the artist and whose portrait he painted). Surviving photographic archive shows Beltran Masses with Charlie Chaplin (Fig.1)[5], the Hearst newspaper columnist Louella Parsons, the actress Merle Oberon, screen legend Douglas Fairbanks Senior and his son Douglas Fairbanks Junior, Sylvia Ashley, Pola Negri (Fig.2)[6] and Gloria Swanson, whom he also painted, among other Hollywood personalities.

Beltran Masses benefited from the enthusiastic support of the critics Arsène Alexandre (1859-1937), an early admirer of Rodin and Seurat (Alexandre invented the term pointillism), and Louis Vauxcelles (1870-1945) who had first used the word Fauvism and invented the adjective Cubism. The poet, novelist and critic Camille Mauclair (1872-1945), an advocate for the symbolist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also praised Beltran Masses. The latter two wrote lengthy introductions to a 1921 illustrated monograph on the artist in which five of the paintings included in this exhibition were reproduced. Arsène Alexandre later wrote the introduction to Beltrán’s illustrations for a 1929 edition of Il Trionfo della Morte (1894) by the renowned Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio[7] at the Galerie Javal and Bourdeaux.

The immediate success of Beltran Masses’ 1929 exhibition in London at the New Burlington Galleries owed much to the art historian and critic for The Observer and Daily Mail, Paul George Konody (1872-1933), who wrote the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, and reviewed it for the Daily Mail in a one-page article. This exhibition – from which two paintings the Salomé and The Nights of Eve were initially removed, – was a triumph for the artist: eighteen paintings in the show stayed in England after the exhibition[8]. Liver disease now compounded his earlier heart problems and on 4 October 1949 Beltran Masses died, aged just sixty-four. A small posthumous exhibition of his portraits was staged by the Lyceum, Havana, Cuba in 1950, his first monographic exhibition in the country of his birth.

Among Beltran Masses’ most relevant solo exhibitions, we should stand out the one organised in the Palace Hotel (Madrid) in 1916 where he received the accolade of a visit from the Spanish King, Alfonso XIII[9]; and of course, Beltran’s participation in the XII Venice Biennale of 1920, where an entire pavilion was dedicated to his paintings. Beltran Masses’ huge success at the 1920 Venice Biennale was consecrated by the inclusion of his Portrait of the Painter (Fig.3) in the gallery of famous painters in the Uffizi leading to a major solo exhibition at the Cercle Interalliée in Paris[10].

Recently a rediscovery of the painter is taking place, which has resulted in three monographic exhibitions in important institutions: in Salamanca (Casa Lis, 2008), Barcelona (Museo Diosesano, 2011) and Madrid (Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, 2012). We also find his painting in the collection of prestigious museums as the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou (París) or the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (Madrid). When the Cuban Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, reopened in 2000 different works were revealed to a public which had no previous acquaintance with the Cuban-born artist.

Seeing the extraordinary painting presented here, we can imagine how the contemporary viewer was struck by Beltran’s use of colour and the mysterious, nocturnal world in which he set so many of his subjects, while sharply illuminating principal figures. He often painted in a darkened room, using artificial light to emphasize the contrast between bodies and their setting.

As we can see in the painting, Beltran’s fascination with Symbolism is evident. Beltran’s work as a portraitist became an important source of revenue; European royalty, members of the Spanish, French, Italian and British aristocracy, the wives and lovers of newly rich entrepreneurs and leading actors and dancers all vied for his attention. Despite the artistic revolution led by Beltran Masses’ Spanish contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris, Beltrán never embraced abstract cubism and futurism held no appeal for him. The realist legacy of his teacher Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), was subsumed instead by a mystical symbolism distinctly Beltrán-Masses’s.

In his use of colour and at times exaggerated drawing, Beltrán forged an individual and radical identity which concentrated on the psychological. His work bears superficial comparison with that of his friend Kees van Dongen, who, like Beltrán, captured the escapism that characterised post-First World War society.  In the case of the exceptional portrait presented here, as was typical of Beltran’s works, we see in the background the bay of Venice, with the unmistakable Saint Mark square. Here, our painter paid special attention to the details of the lady’s finest clothing, perfectly in line with the women’s fashion of the moment, recalling us the sophistication of a movie star.

Reference Bibliograhy:

Francés, J. (et alii) : Federico Beltrán y la Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes de MCMXV, Madrid, Imprenta Española, 1915.

Francés, J.: Federico Beltrán Massés, Estrella, Madrid, 1923

Figuerola Rotger, P.J. (et alii): Federico Beltrán Massés. Un pintor en la corte de Hollywood, Museo Diocesano de Barcelona, 2011.

Mori, G. : Tamara de Lempicka, reina del Art Déco, (Exhibition : 10/05/18 – 02/24/19), Palacio de Gaviria, Madrid, Arthemisia Books.

Pérez Rojas, F.J. : « Federico Beltrán Massés. Simbolismo y Art Déco » in Federico Beltrán Massés. Un pintor en la corte de Hollywood, Museo Diocesano de Barcelona, Barcelona, 2011, p. 33.

VV.AA. :  Federico Beltrán Massés. Castizo cosmopolita, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, 2012.

VV.AA.: Federico Beltrán Masses, Caja Segovia, Segovia, 2008.

[1] VV.AA.: Federico Beltrán Massés. Castizo cosmopolita, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, 2012, p.10.

[2] Figuerola Rotger, P.J. (et alii): FedericoBeltrán Massés. Un pintor en la corte de Hollywood, Museo Diocesano de Barcelona,

Barcelona, 2011, p. 95.

[3] Francés, J. (et alii) : Federico Beltrán y la Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes de MCMXV, Madrid, Imprenta Española, 1915.

[4] Pérez Rojas, F.J. : « Federico Beltrán Massés. Simbolismo y Art Déco » in Federico Beltrán Massés. Un pintor en la corte de Hollywood, Museo Diocesano de Barcelona, Barcelona, 2011, p. 33.

[5] Who bought at least one painting by him, still with the Chaplin heirs.

[6] Pola Negri (1897-1987) was a star of the silent movies with less success in the talkies, sometime lover of Charlie Chaplin, she made no more films in the US between 1932 and 1948, when she tried to get the part of Norma Desmond in the 1948 film, Sunset Boulevard but Gloria Swanson was cast instead. Beltrán-Masses at her request painted a portrait of her with Rudolf Valentino (whom she described as the love of her life) playing the guitar behind her.

[7] Gabriele d’ Annunzio (1863-1938), was created Prince of Montenevoso by the king of Italy. He was, for a long time, lover of Marchesa Luisa Casati, also painted by Beltran Masses and other relevant artists as Boldini or Zuloaga.

[8] There were over 17,000 paying visitors in the first three weeks, although according to The Daily Chronicle newspaper, in a report on 26 May 1934 of the RWS show of that year, there were twenty-five thousand in total before it closed, and more than 11,000 catalogues were sold.

[9]  Mori, G. : Tamara de Lempicka, reina del Art Déco, (Exhibition : 10/05/18 – 02/24/19), Palacio de Gaviria, Madrid, Arthemisia Books, p. 194 [Cat. 76] : « Portrait of Alfonso XIII by Beltran Masses, drawing on paper.

[10] VV.AA. :  Federico Beltrán Masses, Caja Segovia, Segovia, 2008.p. 25.