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Edith Sitwell

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Edith Sitwell

by Pavel Tchelitchew
gouache with sand, 1927
24 5/8 in. x 18 7/8 in. (625 mm x 479 mm)
Purchased, 1986
Primary Collection
NPG 5875

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957), Surrealist painter. Artist of 3 portraits, Sitter in 2 portraits.

This portraitback to top

The Russian emigré artist painted six major portraits of her during the course of a long and volatile friendship; this, probably the first, was painted as Edith Sitwell was on the point of replacing Gertrude Stein as Tchelitchew's champion and muse.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Clerk, Honor, The Sitwells, 1994 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 14 October - 22 January 1995), p. 136 Read entry

    Painted before Tchelitchew's break with Gertrude Stein, this was in all probability the 'first portrait' of Edith by Tchelitchew mentioned in his letter written from Monte Carlo while working on designs for Diaghilev's ballet, Ode: 'I am very glad and very touched that you like your portrait. I am still rather anxious about it in spite of the fact that Gertrude Stein is pleased that you like it. She thought it a good likeness! I think I could do it better - I hope to be able to do so one day when you are in Paris for rather longer than the last time'.1 The portrait was included in the Claridge Gallery exhibition in 1928, reproduced in The Graphic, and used as the frontispiece in the special first edition fo Edith's Collected Poems (1930). It still featured prominently on Osbert's wall when his new flat in York House was photographed by Lewis Morley in 1963.

    1 Quoted in Elizabeth Salter, The Last Years of a Rebel, a Memoir of Edith Sitwell,1967, p 107.

  • Gibson, Robin, Painting The Century: 101 Portrait Masterpieces 1900-2000, 2000 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 26 October 2000 to 4 February 2001), p. 108 Read entry


    Painter and designer, born and studied in Russia; worked in Berlin and then in Paris (1923-34) as a scenic designer for ballets, and earned a reputation as one of the most innovative stage designers of his period; moved to New York in 1934 where he produced a series of large allegorical and metamorphic works; eventually settled in Italy in 1950.


    An émigré from Russia like his exact contemporary Tamara de Lempicka, and openly homosexual, Tchelitchew’s artistic talents were less obviously brash and commercial than his compatriot’s. He was taken up by the formidable American writer and patron Gertrude Stein after his arrival in Paris in 1923, probably in around 1927 when the brightest stars of Stein’s salons such as Picasso and Matisse had begun to drift away. Stein had become friends with the English poet Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) in 1924. Doubtless keen to be recognised as the British Gertrude Stein, Sitwell cultivated the friendship; eventually, with her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, she stage-managed Stein’s lectures in Oxford and Cambridge in the spring of 1926. Stein introduced her to Tchelitchew in 1927, and she gradually replaced the American as Tchelitchew’s champion and muse. She always called him ‘Pavlik’, and their relationship soon began to resemble a love affair. Described by the Australian painter Stella Bowen as ‘each of them a packet of nerves, infusing therefrom a palpitating and sensuous life into their respective work’, they wrote to each other constantly after Tchelitchew’s move to New York in 1934. Their relationship, however, did not survive their reunion when Sitwell made her first visit to America in 1949.

    Tchelitchew painted six major portraits of Edith Sitwell. This is probably the first, the last being a large painting of 1937 depicting her as a ‘sibyl’ which was in the collection of the artist’s other major patron, Edward James. Writing from Monte Carlo, where he was working on the Diaghilev ballet Ode, Tchelitchew told her that Gertrude Stein had thought it a good likeness and was pleased that Edith liked it. The following year, 1928, the portrait was included in his London exhibition, which was arranged by Sitwell at the Claridge Gallery; it was also used in the extensive press coverage that she drummed up. She had it printed as the frontispiece in the special first edition of her Collected Poems (1930). While it is one of the most interesting of the six portraits, it is distinctly less personal than its successors, and is clearly influenced by Picasso’s monochromatic and pre-Cubist work, which Tchelitchew would have seen in Stein’s apartment. Indeed, it somewhat resembles the ‘Easter Island idol’, which was how Sitwell described Stein’s appearance when she first met her. The textured and pitted surface and photographic coloration distinguish the work as a creation of the late 1920s, but its incandescence and idealisation are prophetic of the poetic and Symbolist vein in Tchelitchew’s work which occasionally relate it to Surrealism.


    The Sitwells and the Arts of the 1920s and 1930s, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London, 1994, pp 133-7, no.4.8.

    L. Kirstein, Tchelitchev, Santa Fe, 1994, pp 55-8.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 567

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Subject/Themeback to top

Events of 1927back to top

Current affairs

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, acknowledging the full independence of the Irish Free State, led at the time by W.T. Cosgrave, the the first President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State.

Art and science

The BBC gains its Royal Charter making it a public corporation and a public service broadcaster accountable to its audience. John Reith became the first Director General with the directive to 'inform, educate and entertain.'


Stalin expels Leon Trotsky from the Soviet Communist Party, giving himself greater control of the party and country by ousting opposition elements.

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