Later to become the pre-eminent British portraitist of his day, Augustus John studied at the Slade School of Fine Art London and exhibited regularily with the New English Art Club. In 1919, while painting dignitaries at the Paris Peace Conference, he met the arresting Marchesa Casati, whose extravagance and narcissism were legendary. He was to draw or paint her four times in the course of their thirty-five year friendship.
Originally full length but cut down by the artist, this portrait depicts the Marchesa in silk pajamas, which float elegantly around her slim, pale arms and torso. With her left hand provocatively on her hip, she turns to survey the viewer, her lips moist, her large kolh-darkened eyes glowing beneath a mass of vivid, dyed curls. The amorphorous mountain terrain background and the subject's smile allude to Leonardo's Mona Lisa, although La Casati is more seductive than mysterious. The Marchesa was notorious for her evocation of exotic and historical characters, typically at fancy dress parties. She appears in some guise or other in half of the over 125 known portrayals of her. The AGO's portrait is one of the most successful, John's bravura style matching the Marchesa's provocative gaze and pose.