Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Frau Lally Horstmann 1926c.

Augustus Edwin John RA OM (1878-1961)

Portrait of Frau Lally Horstmann, Augustus Edwin John
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Oil on canvas
20th Century
47 1/4 x 31 3/4 in., 120 x 80.5 cm
 
Provenance:
The artist’s studio sale, Christies, London, 7th February 1962, lot 147; Dr and Mrs Jules Stein, New York
Literature:
Augustus John, Autobiography, (first published London 1952) p209.
This flamboyant and spontaneous portrait was painted by John in about 1926, during a visit to Berlin. Its unfinished state allows us to see into John’s famously vigorous technique, and shows perfectly how he painted his inter-war portraits with sudden ‘fits of seeing’. In his autobiography, John recalled his trip to Germany, then recovering in the guise of the Weimar Republic from the First World War, with great pleasure. He described Lali Horstmann as ‘charming’ and an ‘admirable model’ whom, he later noted, ‘seemed to have imported her sense of inscrutability from the Far East’. John also noted that the picture ‘had to be left unfinished’, but does not state why. Since the present work was sold from the artist’s estate in 1962, he evidently took the canvas with him on his return to England.

Frau Horstmann was the wife of Alfred, ‘Freddy’, Horstmann, a well-respected German diplomat. In the late 1920s, Freddy Horstmann was the head of the English department at the German Foreign Office, through which he and his wife became friends with Harold Nicolson, and later became German Ambassador to Belgium and Portugal. However, he resigned in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, rather than work for the Nazis. The Horstmann’s were well-off, and keen collectors and patrons of the arts.

The Horstmann’s life during the war was hard enough, not least because of Lali’s Jewish descent. However, it is for her moving account of the harrowing events of the Russian invasion and occupation of Germany that she is best known. Her autobiography, ‘Nothing for Tears’ (London, 1953, and most recently, 2000), is regarded as one of the most important personal German testimonies of the end of the second world war. The book chronicles the systematic rapes perpetrated by Russian troops, the random seizures and shootings, and the total breakdown of order between late 1944 and 1946.

In 1945, as Germany collapsed in the face of the allied invasion, the Horstmann’s decided, against the trend, not to flee from the Russian advance, and stayed at their estate in Kerzendorf, to the east of Berlin. ‘Nothing for Tears’ tells the story of Lali Horstmann’s attempts to safeguard her family, likening the scenes she witnessed as akin to Goya’s Disasters of War. At first, the Horstmanns were able, through their wealth and possessions, to anaesthetise themselves from the worst excesses, but soon the valuable objets sought by Russian soldiers ran out, and, amid rooms hung with slashed pictures and covered with smashed porcelain, Lali and her family lived in constant fear of rape. On one occasion her only defence was, pathetically, a Fabergé letter opener. The final blow came in March 1946, when her husband was seized by the Russian secret police, to die a year later from starvation in a prisoner of war camp. Lali escaped to Western occupied Germany, and eventually to Brazil, where she died in 1954.
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