Behind De Laszlo’s Famous Portrait

BEHIND DE LASZLO’S FAMOUS PAINTING

I recently completed a study, my own version of the 1921 portrait painting of Dona Maria Mercedes De Alvear, after the original by one of my favourite portrait artists, the great Philip De Laszlo. He painted many well known personalities, among them instantly recognisable members of the British royal family. Some of his subjects are not so well known, and some to me, quite mysterious, such as this aristocratic young lady from Argentina whose portrait is one of his greatest works. I felt compelled to find out who she was… and was quite unprepared for such a fascinating story:

PORTRAIT OF MARIA MERCEDES DE ALVEAR BY MICHAEL MCNAUGHTON
(DE LASZLO 1921)

It all starts when a small flotilla of Spanish naval ships leaves Montevideo harbour on 7 August 1804, en route to Cadiz in Spain.

On board the frigate Mercedes was General Diego De Alvear, transporting with him his considerable wealth accumulated after many years of service in the River Plate area, and also his wife and children.

On 5 October 1804 the Spanish ships were intercepted by a British flotilla near the Portuguese coast of Algarve, and even though both countries were at peace after the Treaty of Amiens, they threatened the Spaniards. Diego Alvear and his son Carlos María were called to the flagship Medea, to serve as interpreters as they spoke English.

The incident got out of hand when British gunfire, designed to intimidate the Spanish, hit the Mercedes, presumably detonating munitions on board, because the frigate was recorded as having sunk after a massive explosion. Tragically, over 200 people on theMercedes were killed, including Don Diego’s wife and children. The only surviving son of what was to become known as the Battle of Cabo De Sante Maria was Carlos De Alvear, who was with his father aboard the Medea at the time. Spain declared war on Great Britain two months later, in December 1804, and the Battle of Trafalgar was to follow the year after.

THE FRIGATE “MERCEDES” SINKS AT CABO DE SANTE MARIA

After the sinking of the Mercedes, the flotilla was captured and sailed to England where Diego de Alvear was made prisoner, but with honours and privileges. The tragic family loss was not lost on the British to the point that the British government decided to reimburse Don Diego part of his economic losses due to the sinking of the Mercedes.

During his captivity he met, going to mass, a young Irish lady, Luisa Ward, whom he would later marry. In December 1805 he returned to Spain and in 1806 arrived in Madrid. Diego De Alvear married Luisa on January 20, 1807, in Montilla (Córdoba, Spain), where incidentally his grandfather had been the founder of the Alvear wine estate which still exists today.

Don Diego went on to attain many civil and military honours in an illustrious career. During the Spanish War of Independence he distinguished himself as commander of artillery defending the city of Cadiz against invading French troops in 1808, organising also the city’s defence in general, and capturing a French naval flotilla in Cadiz Bay.

On 18 May 2007 the salvage firm Odyssey Marine Exploration announced the discovery of a spectacular maritime treasure trove, possibly the world’s biggest, in the Atlantic Ocean. The find included USD 500 million worth of gold and (mainly) silver coins, and hundreds of other valuable objects.
Odyssey flew the 17 ton discovery from Gibraltar to its US headquarters in Tampa, Florida, but Spanish authorities suspected the discovery was made in Spanish territorial waters or on the wreck of a Spanish vessel… As the facts emerged, this vessel turned out to be none other than the frigate “Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes“, the ship of Diego De Alvear.

The Spanish government, media and people were incensed that the fabled treasure of the Mercedes may have been salvaged and whisked off to another country. A Spanish judge ordered the interception of the two Odyssey ships believed to have been involved in the discovery of the treasure and the Spanish government filed claims in a US court over Odyssey’s find, arguing that if the shipwreck was Spanish or was removed from its waters, any treasure would belong to Spain.

THE TREASURE IS FLOWN OUT OF GIBRALTAR TO FLORIDA USA

After a two month standoff, during which the Odyssey ships were effectively cornered in Gibraltar harbour, a Spanish Navy warship and a Civil Guard vessel headed them off as they attempted to escape, threatening to open fire if they did not follow instructions. The ships were then escorted to a Spanish port, Algericas, and the vessels were boarded and searched by police, the captain being arrested. A remarkably similar situation to what had happened to the Medea flotilla in 1804.

STAND-OFF … THE ODYSSEY EXPLORER, LEFT, AS IT WAS INTERCEPTED BY A CIVIL GUARD PATROL BOAT, RIGHT, AND A WARSHIP.
PHOTO: AFP

In February 2012, after a five-year court battle, during which even the government of Peru attempted to stake a claim, a U.S. federal judge awarded the treasure to Spain and ordered Odyssey Marine to relinquish the treasure to Spanish authorities. The large cache of coins and other artifacts were then collected and flown back to Spain in two Spanish Hercules military transport aircraft on 27 February 2012. Spain’s culture minister indicated the treasure would be divided among several national museums.

Odyssey Marine spent $2.6 million salvaging, transporting, conserving and storing the treasure, but it is not expected to receive any compensation from the Spanish government for the salvage because Spain has maintained that the company should not have attempted to do so in the first place. Odyssey argued that the wreck was never positively identified as the Mercedes. And if it was that vessel, then the ship was on a commercial trade trip — not a sovereign mission – at the time it sank, meaning Spain would have no firm claim to the cargo. International treaties generally hold that warships sunk in battle are protected from treasure seekers.

FLYING THE TREASURE BACK TO SPAIN
PHOTO: DEFENSE MINISTRY OF SPAIN / EPA

The young Carlos De Alvear, who as a 15 year old boy had been the only survivor of Don Diego’s children after the sinking of theMercedes, adopted his lost mother’s name, becoming Carlos Maria De Alvear. He was educated in England, moved to Spain, served in the Spanish Army in the Napoleonic Wars and eventually returned to Buenos Aires on board the English frigate George Canning, to take up a commission in the young Argentine army.

GENERAL CARLOS MARIA DE ALVEAR

He is a national hero of Argentina today, having reached the rank of General at the age of 25 and known for his noteworthy success as commander of the Revolutionary forces which forced the 1814 Spanish surrender in Montevideo (their last bastion of power on the River Plate) and as victor of the 1827 Battle of Ituzaingo during Argentina’s war with Brazil over a swathe of land between them which was later to become Uruguay.

ARGENTINE CAVALRY CHARGING BRAZILIAN INFANTRY SQUARES AT THE BATTLE OF ITUZAINGO 1827

This Argentine General De Alvear was Maria Mercedes De Alvear’s great-grandfather. During the 19th and 20th centuries the family were still well known aristocrats in the Buenos Aires area, Maria’s father, also named Carlos, being a wealthy landowner. Maria Mercedes was born in Buenos Aires on 25 March 1896, the youngest of nine children. She was named after her elder sister, María Mercedes, who had died in 1893, aged seven. She apparently grew up mostly in Paris, which was not uncommon for Argentinian aristocrats in those days, and her parents commissioned the portrait by Philip de Laszlo to hang in their palatial new home in Buenos Aires, designed by the famous French architect Réne Sargent.
It was called Sans Souci, and took 4 years to build, opening with great celebration in 1918. No longer in the family today, this grand home was used as the Presidential Palace for the 1996 Hollywood film Evita (although President Peron and his wife Eva never in fact lived there).

FOTO: MARIA MERCEDES DE ALVEAR

I have not been able to find out much more about her personal life, other than that she “lost her reason” a few years after the portrait was painted, and died unmarried in 1962 at the age of 66. It seems sad that such a fascinating story should end this way, the subject alone and ‘lost’… but her immortality is ensured not only by one of the greatest portrait painters of all time, but also in one of his best paintings ever. The original portrait was recently sold at auction for GBP 97,250 (Christies).
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