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The Story Behind the Painting.

Chaim Soutine’s Coco Chanel

With Chaim Soutine’s portrait of Coco Chanel (oil on paper) at auction this January in Monaco, I was intrigued to find out a little more. Browsing through Soutine’s Catalogue Raisonne I found a similar portrait (oil on board) of a lady called Maria Lani. A very interesting woman indeed! Maria Lani was the Muse of Modernist Masters, or Con Artist, genius or Both?

Arriving in Paris in the Spring of 1928, claiming to be a silent film star from Berlin with her manager Maximilian Abramowicz, the pair’s timing was perfect. The scene in Paris in the 1920s was lively, a whirlpool of talent and ideas with the greatest concentration of artists on the earth. The duo quickly seduced the most famous artists of the time, saying they had come to France to make a film, ‘The Woman of the Hundred faces’. Maria Lani was to play the lead and Abramowicz to produce. The film called for portraits of Maria by different artists, and the portraits would come alive, bursting out of their frames and onto the screen. The most important and expensive painters, including

Chagell, Bonnard, Braque, de Chirico, Cocteau, Robert Delaunay, Derain, van Dongen, Leger, Matisse, Man Ray, Ozenfant, Picabia, Rouault, Soutine, Valadon and 43 others all painted this prominent cinema star. (Although never Picasso, who was always a bit suspicious of the pair!)

Maria Lani was now an international phenomenon and mixing with the social elite, attending the best parties and being introduced to the likes of Coco Chanel.

Abramowicz and Lani soon had 51 portraits in their possession, enough for an international exhibition. In November 1929 Maria Lani and Abramowicz exhibited these portraits all over the world, including NY, Chicago, London, Berlin, Paris and Rotterdam. A New York Times writer reported at the end of 1930 “The Maria Lani Group is apparently circling the Globe”. One journalist wrote “An obscure actress has outdone Cleopatra and Catherine de Medici. All London is talking of her.”

Then, in 1931, the pair disappeared without a trace and 50 or so portraits were never seen again.

As years went by, a legend grew, that Maria Lani was no actress but a secretary from Prague, and Abramowicz the mastermind of an elaborate fraud, luring, with a fake film scenario, the most famous artists of the day.

Lani was called “The favourite model of the great painters. Triumph of an Imposture”.

David Henty’s Coco Chanel after Chaim Soutine oil on board is available through or


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