Federico Beltran Masses

Guira De La Melena, Cuba 1885 - Barcelona 1949

Federico Beltran Masses studied under Sorolla at the Barcelona Academy of Fine Arts and in Madrid, where he attained national recognition after King Alfonso XIII acquired a work at the painter’s first exhibition.  In 1916 Beltran, like Picasso and Gris, moved to Paris, where he would live for the next thirty years. Success at the 1920 Venice Biennale secured Beltran Masses an international reputation and he went on to exhibit in Buenos Aires, Nice, Paris, London, New York, Palm Beach and Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s.  He would paint three Kings, a Pope, Ballet Russes principals, and fashion icons. Collectors of Beltran’s work included Charlie Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst and legendary figures on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1925, Beltran Masses went to Hollywood as the guest of his friend Rudolph Valentino; he introduced the artist to a fast crowd who soon become both sitters and patrons. Beltran often painted his subjects in exotic roles creating portraits that feel at once genuine and as darkly romantic as 1920s escapist cinema. The settings were nocturnal and atmospheric, whether hazy Venetian canals or starlit, deep blue open sky. The palette of his shadowy visions became known as ‘Beltran blue’.

The artist’s paintings were often erotic and thus controversial; Beltran’s Salome was withdrawn from exhibition in London in 1929, regarded as too risqué. Yet works by Federico Beltran Masses today feature in the Centre Pompidou, the Jeu de Paume and Petit Palais in Paris, and the Centre Reina Sofia in Madrid among other international museums.


1885     Federico Beltran y Masses is born on 29 September in Güira de Melena, Cuba, the only child of Luis Beltran Fernandez Estepona, a former Spanish army officer stationed in Cuba, and Dona Mercedes Masses Olives, the daughter of a doctor from Lleida, Catalonia, who himself had married the daughter of a wealthy Spanish Cuban-landowner.

1892     The young family return to Barcelona, living first at calle Conde de Asalto, before moving to calle Pelayo.

1899     Luis Beltran objects to his sons expressed wish to be a painter so Federico works at a local store, Old England, with the hope of amassing sufficient money to escape to Paris, a plan his father discovers. It is the manager at the store who shows an enraged Luis Federico’s drawings of a saleswoman named Valentina who Federico draws daily. Won-over by his son’s diligence, Luis Beltran allows Federico to attend evening life-drawing classes at the Ateneu Obrer – a cultural facility for those who must earn a living and can study only in the evenings.

1902     Whilst visiting the local Museum of Fine Art, Luis challenges Federico to faithfully copy the painting Human Misery by Leo van Aken (1857-1904), proposing that if the copy is convincing Luis will support Federico and allow his son to devote himself full-time to painting. Federico wrote in his journal: ‘nothing stopped me. It was now my fault if I could not paint.’[i] Upon seeing the quality of the copy the museum’s director requires that Federico’s reproduction be decidedly smaller than the original so as not to be mistaken for a forgery. Convinced of his son’s talents, Federico Beltran Masses receives his father’s blessing and financial support.

1903     Beltran wins a first-place drawing prize and admission to Llotja, today the Escuela de Artes e Industrias y Bellas Artes de Barcelona.

1904     On November 26, Luis Beltran, aged forty-five, is murdered in Barcelona, a crime which will go unsolved.  Federico Beltran, nineteen, is emotionally distraught, but his father’s death also causes his mother and him financial hardship.

1906     Federico Beltran Masses moves to Madrid at the invitation of the poet Don Melcior de Palau; the young painter copies in the Prado, begins to show his portraits and self-portraits, and studies with Joaquin Sorolla before returning to Barcelona.

1908     Beltran meets the widowed Sra. Narezo, who invites him to spend the summer at her home in the Picos de Europa, Basque mountains north of Barcelona. Beltran paints a series of portraits of the countrymen and women of the town of Liébana whilst there which medal at exhibitions in Mexico and Belgium.

1911     Beltran marries Irene Narezo Dragoné, the widow Narezo’s daughter, six years his junior, at the Monastery of Montserrat near Barcelona. The marriage will prove childless, but lifelong. The couple visit the great museums whilst on honeymoon in France, the Netherlands and Germany. Viuda Narezo e hija (The widow Narezo and her daughter) earns a gold medal at the VI Exposición Internacional in Barcelona.

1914     In November Beltran exhibits fifty-seven works at the painting salon, the Salón Parés, in Barcelona.

1915     When La Maja Marquesa is shown in Madrid the exhibition committee brand the painting immoral and demand its title be changed to simply Las Majas in order to avoid allusion to the lesbian Marquesa whose nude portrait is the painting’s central figure. Upset by the censorship, Beltran decides to leave Spain for Paris.

1916     A farewell solo exhibition at the Palace Hotel in Madrid is attended by King Alfonso XIII and a resounding success with critics. The King agrees to buy Noche Galante, 1914 (Patrimonio Nacional, see fig. XXII), for 14,000 pesetas. Dowager Queen Maria Cristina acquaints the artist with the Spanish Ambassador to France, facilitating the Beltran Masses’ relocation to Paris. Their home will be Villa Guibert, at 83, rue de la Tour for the next forty years.

1918 – 1920    Beltran Masses paints his most divisive painting, Salomé. Anita Delgado, Maharani of Kapurtula and Maharja Sukhjit Singh of Kapurthala and the infamous Marquise Luisa Casati commission portraits. La Maja Maldita is a portrait of the legendary Spanish dancer Carmen Tórtola Valencia.

1920     At the XII Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della città di Venezia, the 1920 Venice Biennale, Spain give Federico Beltran Masses the entirety of room number five, a massive thirty-six square meter exhibition space. The honour secures him an international reputation confirmed by the acquisition by the Uffizi, Florence, of Beltran’s Portrait of the Painter. The self-portrait becomes a part of the Gallery’s centuries-old collection of artists’ self-portraits that hang in the Vasari Corridor. Beltran is called the successor to Boldini in the Italian Press.

1921     Beltran shows one-hundred and three paintings at the Cercle Interallié in Paris and paints portraits of the Marquise Casa Maury, Countess Arlette Schneider, H.R.H. King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and Countess Raymonde Poilove de Saint Perrier.

1924     Wildenstein Galleries, New York, hold Beltran’s first North American exhibition but the works, despite good reviews, are deemed expensive and fail to sell.

1925     Beltran’s second exhibition in the United States is held months later by the Society of Arts in the new Whitehall Hotel (formerly Whitehall, the Flagler residence, a hotel, from 1925 to 1959, and today the Flagler Museum), Palm Beach. The show is a triumph: newspapers report it sells out for the staggering sum of $150,000.

Mrs Guggenheim, Mrs JP Morgan and William Randolph Hearst commission portraits. Rudolph Valentino invites Beltran to Hollywood in order to have his portrait painted by the artist who had painted the King of Spain. Valentino helps to organise an exhibition of Beltran work through the Stendhal Galleries at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles. Valentino is the master of ceremony at the opening for hundreds. Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr, Gloria Swanson, Barbara Le Mar, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies and industry elites attend.  Charlie Chaplin and William Randolph Hearst purchase paintings.  A close friendship develops with Valentino, with whom Beltran lives whilst in California, first with Valentino and Natasha Rambova at Whitley Heights, then after their separation with Valentino alone at his new mansion Falcon Lair.

1926     After his return to Paris, Beltran receives a commission from the French government to represent pictorially a new signed Franco-Spanish Alliance. The painting will be installed in the French Embassy in Madrid and Beltran participates in the state visit of Marshal Petain (1856-1951) to Madrid to see General Primo de Rivera (1870-1930), with whom he tours the Prado.

The Spanish government buy two of Beltran’s paintings exhibited at the Salon du Franc, Paris: Corrida en un pueblo de Aragon, 1924, for 26,000 French Francs, and La noche azul, 1917, a work commissioned from the artist that year yet never delivered. Today both are in the collection of the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.

1927     Beltran travels from Marseilles to Colombo, Sri Lanka on 13 -31 January and spends the following weeks traveling through-out India; He visits Calcutta, Madras, Madura, Trichinopoly and Benares before finishing his trip in Ceylon on 1 March. Beltran arrives back to Marseilles on the steamerthe Sphinx on 18 March.

Plans to paint King Carol II of Romania fail to materialise amidst political turmoil, but Initiale (1914) is sent to Romania and today is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Bucharest.

1928     Beltran curates the Goya centenary exhibition organized by the French-Spanish alliance in Bordeaux.

Beltran designing costumes and sets for the play La Sonatina, by Ernesto Halffter, and performed by Antonia Marcé called ‘La Argentina’ on 18 June.

Beltran tours Switzerland friends William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davis

1929     I arrive in London with the nerves of a child still in art school. I await the verdict of [the city] with more fear than I would any other art-world capital’ the painter declared.[ii] The New Burlington Galleries, London, host a well-publicized and controversial exhibition of the paintings of Federico Beltran Masses under the patronage of King Alfonso XIII of Spain, a personal friend of the painter who attends. Salome is deemed immoral and removed from the opening of the exhibition, but rehung the following day.

The controversy and attention attract 17,317 paying people to the show in 22 days, 12,000 catalogues sell and 192 articles mention the exhibition around the world.[iii]

Beltran summers in Biarritz with his friend, painter Kees Van Dongen.

1930     The artist’s eyesight begins to fail. A planned exhibition in New York does not materialise. He returns to Europe to paint King Umberto II and Pope Pius XI in Rome.

1931     Beltran shows at Galerie Bernheim Jeune and Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. Douglas Fairbanks Jr and his wife Joan Crawford have several portraits painted by their old acquaintance whilst visiting Europe.

1934     The Royal Watercolour Society hosts an exhibition of Federico Beltran Masses that includes Mme Wellington KooMrs Anthony de Rothschild and two portraits of the ballerina Alice Nikitina.

Twelve of the artist paintings appear in the sets for the film Le Rosaire by Gaston Ravel and Tony Lekain.

1938     Beltran participates in the exhibition L’Art Espagnol Contemporain at the Musée du Jeu de Paume, and presents another show at Bernheim-Jeune, Paris before a second solo exhibitions at the New Burlington Galleries, London. He paints Mariana Tacon, Duchess of the Union of Cuba, the Marquise de Martegne, King George VI, Mrs. Iscovesco-Worth and Pope Pius XII.

1943     Exhibitions are organised at the Palace Hotel, Madrid, and at Pallarés Galleries, Barcelona. Beltran’s health begins to deteriorate, but ignoring doctors, he leaves Paris ill for his Barcelona opening. He receives a commission to decorate the interior of the basilica in Zaragoza but poor health will prohibit its execution.

1944     Unwell, Beltran illustrates two books of poetry: Christiane Bartholini-Napp’s and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. Circumstances force the move from the couple’s home of thirty years to the smaller 4, avenue Rafael, Paris.

1946     Beltran returns to Barcelona alone on 14 February and moves into room 501 at the Ritz Hotel. Irene, still in Paris, packs up their belongings and prepares a permanent return to Barcelona after forty years in Paris.

1947     Despite deteriorating health Beltran holds two exhibitions in the halls of the Ritz Hotel.

1949     The pronounced symptoms of liver disease overtake the painter and on October 4 Federico Beltran Masses dies, age 64. Irene is there.[iv]


[i] Federico Beltran Masses – A painter in the court of Hollywood, Edición Museu Diocesà de Barcelona, 2011, p. 230, quote found by Josep Fèlix Bentz in the artists journal, private collection, Barcelona

[ii] Ibid, as quoted in Joan Abelló Juanpere’s article ‘Esplendor y crepúsculo’, p. 149, found in the Los Angeles Examiner. The translation is our own.

[iii] Certificate from the Art Exhibition Bureau, London, referenced in the above article, p. 150.

[iv] This chronology owes to the scholarship of Josep Félix Bentz, Marco Ancora, and Joan Abelló Juanpere, published in three articles in Federico Beltran Masses – Federico Beltran Masses – A painter in the court of Hollywood, Edición Museu Diocesà de Barcelona, 2011