This is a story about how working on the forthcoming book Father Letters: Correspondence between Anaïs and Joaquín Nin, 1933-1940 inspired a quest to locate what I thought was a long-lost portrait of Anaïs Nin.
In one of Joaquín’s letters to Anaïs, dated Sept. 6, 1933, he expresses gratitude for two items his daughter had sent him: one was a photograph, and the other was a small reproduction of a portrait of Anaïs by Nastashia Troubetskioa (aka Princess Natasha Troubetskoi). About the portrait, Joaquín says:
There is a good resemblance in your portrait: the similarity of movement of both hands was unfortunate, but the whole is extremely attractive. Despite the fur coat, we can guess the “grace” of the body and all its finesse. And it is slightly “slavic.” One would want to call you Anaïscha Ninskaya Guilerova…!
In a letter dated the next day, he said:
Your little Russian portrait is there where I can see it; you seem to be observing the procession of a fiancé that Madame Troubetskoia has offered you so you can reign legally…and as such you seem to lack what you really need.
I had seen photographs in some of Anaïs Nin’s diaries and other Nin-related publications, in which she sits in front of the finished portrait. Naturally, I began to wonder about its fate—who owns it? Does it even still exist?
I did a little research and found that on January 23, 1929, Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary:
Visited Princess Troubetskoi, who is a painter and decorator. I had heard of her furniture and wanted to see it for my future home. While I admired the furniture she admired me: “You have a dream face. I must paint you, like that, in your sapphire-blue coat against the background of my chair (her own work, copper designed with figures of a Pushkin legend and inlaid with colored stones). You like this furniture? Pure Russian. No—all Russian wouldn’t do for you, too heavy. Russian-Oriental. Yes, a delicate Oriental. When will you come? I am going to get a canvas right now” (Early Diary of Anaïs Nin 1927-1931, p. 157).
The next day, Anaïs wrote:
The Princess has made a deep impression on me—her enthusiasm, frankness, her genius for color and decoration, the quality of her mind, her love of legends, her understanding of sadness. […] What I feel in her studio has a stronger hold upon my imagination than any other emotion (Early Diary of Anaïs Nin 1927-1931, p. 157).
On January 26, 1929, she added:
I am too occupied with the Princess and almost too happy to find out she has very few friends and that she wants me to “come upstairs as often as possible” because I fit into her background (Early Diary of Anaïs Nin 1927-1931, p. 159) and Every morning I posed for the Princess (Early Diary of Anaïs Nin 1927-1931, p. 161).
Shortly after the massive portrait was finished, both Anaïs and Nastashia Troubetskioa posed for a small photoshoot, and the photo of Anaïs sitting next to the painting was one of them.
But what happened to the portrait?
I googled the artist’s name, which is listed in later diary entries as “Natashia Troubetskoia,” and went to images: Among the dozens of images, I saw was one in color, which stood out because all the others were black and white. Next, I visited the source of the image and was shocked to learn that it was the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D. C., just down the freeway from where I live. First, I was relieved that it still exists, and second, I found out that it is among their non-displayed collection, meaning they had it, but it was kept in their archives and was not available for public view.
There was no way that this painting and I were not going to be in the same place at the same time, so I immediately called and asked for a private viewing.
I was asked all the questions one would expect: Who are you? Why do you want to view the painting? What are your credentials? What are your intentions?
When I replied that I am a Nin publisher and had come across Joaquín’s comments in the father letters, I was put in touch with Dorothy Moss, who is the Curator of Painting and Sculpture, and the Coordinating Curator of the Smithsonian Women’s History Initiative, which I was unaware of up to that point.
Dorothy was more than helpful: she arranged a private viewing on a sunny summer weekday morning. We came too early and were told to wait outside, and I noticed more than one side-eye from the security people; but once the clock hit 9:00, we were allowed back in and introduced to Jennifer Wodzianski, the Smithsonian Registrar of Collections, who acted as our guide. We were practically the only people in the mammoth gallery, since the doors don’t open to the public until 11:00 AM, so the trip through a labyrinth of hallways and up an elevator was sort of surreal.
Then, we entered what looked like a store room, and there it was: The six-foot tall Troubestkoia portrait, the color and texture of which was stunning. No photograph can reveal the three-dimensional quality of the painting; thick applications of oil seemed to have one purpose: to permit the face of the then-26-year-old Anaïs Nin to practically leap out of the canvas. When I stood near the visage, I had the feeling that it is a living thing, that the eyes can see, and that the smile is intended for whoever views it. I’m no art expert, but I can say that I have never seen a painting like it anywhere. It profoundly affected me. I practically had to be pried away from it; the only reason I allowed this to happen is because it was apparent that the other people in the room had other things to do—it is the Smithsonian, after all.
The obvious question for me was: Will the portrait ever be displayed? It had been purchased from a private collector in Paris in 2000; but here’s the kicker: the collector had purchased it in the 1980s at an antiques fair in Ile de Chatou, a White Russian enclave, which is just west of Paris and only a few miles from the village where Anaïs once lived, Louveciennes.
So, will it be displayed? As of today, no one has a definitive answer, but there are two facts that have to be considered: One, thousands of dollars have been spent to restore it; Two, thousands more are being spent to frame it. The logical conclusion is that yes, it will be on display for the public, otherwise such an investment (the original purchase , the restoration and the framing) would never have been made.
The question now seems to be not if, but when. I, for one, will keep you posted. And I wonder if you will have the same reaction I had when you finally see it in person.
To listen to a 9-minute podcast about this topic with iTunes, click here.
To listen to the podcast without iTunes, click here.