Blue Nights and Libertine Legends: Federico Beltrán-Masses at London's Stair Sainty Gallery

By Richard Moss | 12 October 2012
a photo of naked woman falling backwards dramatically on pile of cushions
Federico Beltrán Masses, Salome (1918)© Private collection
Exhibition Preview: Federico Beltrán Masses: Blue Nights and Libertine Legends, Stair Sainty, London, until November 9 2012

With their alluring mixture of eroticism, 1920s glamour and an art deco style that recalls the work of Tamara de Lempicka, it’s little wonder the paintings of Federico Beltrán-Masses are beginning to claw back some of the popularity - and notoriety - they enjoyed in their heyday.

The Spanish artist painted some of the most famous faces (and bodies) of the 1920s, including Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Rudolf Valentino, Joan Crawford and the ballet dancer Nikitina. To most of them he brought a thrilling sensuality that was equal parts jazz age decadence and fin de siècle flash.

A procession of accomplished and emancipated women sat for him, including the Chinese fashion icon and socialite Madame Wellington-Koo, Mme Bonnardel (countess de Montgomery – she of the feted “Red and White” salon of 1930s Paris), Joan Crawford and Lady Rothschild. All were rendered in mysterious, nocturnal shades of blue – Beltrán blue – and invested with varying degrees of sensuality.

The paintings, which seemed to echo the darkly romantic escapism of 1920s cinema, caused a sensation.

In 1914, his sapphic Maja Marquesa was censored by the Comité del Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes (the Spanish equivalent of the jury of the Paris salon) and in 1929 his depiction of Salome, which still makes for interesting viewing today, was removed from a show in Burlington Gardens.

Described by a newspaper in 1929 as the “most daring nude ever painted”, when it eventually re-appeared in London it drew sizeable crowds eager to see it for themselves.

Partly as a result of all this brouhaha and the high society sitters, the paintings became popular with the rich and famous; Charlie Chaplin, King Alfonso XIII of Spain and Randolph Hearst were all patrons. Museums including the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Centre Reina Sofia in Madrid also acquired them, but over the years his name and his work became neglected.

The Stair Sainty exhibition, which features both Maja Marquesa and Salome together with vaporously ethereal portraits of Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Joan Crawford and Countess Montgomery (displayed next to the original red cape she wore for her sitting), was co-organised by the man behind the rejuvenation of the profile of Tamara de Lempicka, Parisian dealer Alan Blondel. 

The paintings of Beltrán-Masses may not hit the heights of notoriety they enjoyed in the 1920s, but they may well become a hit again with the rich and famous. 

a triple portrait of a woman wearing traditional Spanish dress and headdress, with the central figure naked in side profile
Federico Beltrán Masses, La Maja Marquesa (1915)© Estate of the artist. Private Collection

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this show looks incredible - I can't believe this guy has fallen off the radar
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