Listening to Art

03.02: Augustus John, Marchesa Casati

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Listening to Art, by William Denton.

Volume three, number two: Marchesa Casati by Augustus John.

Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.

In 1919 Welsh painter Augustus John, who that year turned 41, was at the Paris Peace Conference, where he met, among others, T.E. Lawrence. I quote from Michael Holroyd’s Augustus John: A Biography (pp. 572–573):

It was the Marchesa Casati, of the archaic smile and macabre beauty, who beckoned him into international society. As Luisa Ammon, daughter of a Milanese industrialist, she had been, it was said, a mousy little girl. As the young wife of Camillo Casati, noblest of the Roman huntsmen, she pounced like a panther on to life: and overshot it. The mousy hair burst into henna’d flames: the grey-green eyes, now ringed with black kohl, expanded enormously, amazing false eyelashes spreading and weaving before them like peacock’s feathers. Her lips were steeped in vermilion, her feet empurpled, her face, transformed by some black-and-white alchemy, became a painted mask, a sphinx. By taking thought she added a cubit to her stature, raising her legs on altudinous platform heels, and crowning her head with top hats of tiger skin and black satin, huge gold waste-paper baskets turned upside down, or the odd inverted flowerpot from which gesticulated a salmon-pink feather. It was for her that Léon Bakst, soaring on his most extravagant flights of fancy, designed incroyable Persian trousers of the most savage cut; for her Mariano Fortuny invented his finest fabrics—long scarves of oriental gauze, soaked in the mysterious pigments of his vats and “tinted with strange dreams.” …

She had been painted by innumerable artists. To Marinetti and the Futurists, she was their Gioconda; to Boldini, who portrayed her smothered in peacock feathers and arched over cushions like a pretend-panther, she was Scheherazade. To John, who painted her twice in April 1919, she was something else again: a truncated, pyjama’d figure, fantastically mascara’d, and poised, vamp-like, before a view of Vesuvius where, as the unbidden guest of Axel Munthe, she overstayed her welcome by some fifteen years. For once romanticism and irony were perfectly blended to produce what Lord Duveen was to call “an outstanding masterpiece of our time.”

This is a painting, oil on canvas, 68.6 cm wide by 96.5 cm high.

Now let’s listen to Marchesa Casati by Augustus John, recorded at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, Ontario, on 20 April 2018.

Waveform of the field recording.

That was Marchesa Casati by Augustus John. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.

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All web sites accessed as of date of publication.

Art Gallery of Ontario. “The Marchesa Casati.” Art Gallery of Ontario.

Holroyd, Michael. Augustus John: A Biography. Rev. ed. Harmondsworth UK: Penguin, 1976.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Augustus John,”

⸻, s.v. “Luisa Casati,”