This refined pastel portrait of film legend Mary Astor by the American illustrator Rolf Armstrong dates to 1938, during the artist’s brief tenure as a Hollywood portraitist. The elegant and understated large format artwork reflects Armstrong’s desire to move away from the rigid demands and deadline driven style of his in demand career as America’s leading calendar artist. In the early 1930s, Armstrong moved from New York to the West Coast and started an independent fine art company “Armstrong Art Services.” Though the venture was poorly timed, and the Great Depression among other variables led to its commercial failure, the original artworks from this period comprise some of Armstrong’s most sophisticated and enduring images. The Hollywood Venus (previously sold at Grapefruit Moon Gallery) and large, often published portraits of Boris Karloff, Constance Bennett, Mrs William Randolph Hearst, as well as this elegant and glowing portrait of Maltese Falcon star Mary Astor all emerged from this short but prolific residency.
This artwork was part of the estate of Mike Wooldridge, co-author of Pin Up Dreams: The Glamour World of Rolf Armstrong; and was previously in the collection of Armstrong’s long-time muse and model, Jewel Flowers.
Soon after the creation of this pastel illustration of Mary Astor, Armstrong renewed his relationship with Brown & Bigelow. One of only a handful of American illustrators to receive these rare and lucrative commissions from Hollywood royalty, his societal portraiture shines with a artistry that isn’t seen in some of the comparable work by illustrators like Howard Chandler Christy, Zoe Mozert and James Montgomery Flagg, who also worked in this vein.
Biography of Mary Astor by Hal Erickson
Pressured into an acting career by her ambitious parents, Mary Astor was a silent film star before she was 17 — a tribute more to her dazzling good looks than anything else. Debuting in The Beggar Maid (1921), Astor appeared opposite John Barrymore in 1923’s Beau Brummell with whom she had a romantic relationship and later starred with in Don Juan (1926), Anxious not to be a victim of the talking-picture revolution, the actress perfected her vocal technique in several stage productions for Edward Everett Horton’s Los Angeles-based Majestic Theatre, and the result was a most successful talkie career. Things nearly fell to pieces in 1936 when, in the midst of a divorce suit, Astor’s ex-husband tried to gain custody of the couple’s daughter by making public a diary she had kept. In this volume, Astor detailed her affair with playwright George S. Kaufman; portions of the diary made it to the newspapers, causing despair for Astor and no end of embarrassment for Kaufman. But Astor’s then-current employer, producer Sam Goldwyn, stood by his star and permitted her to complete her role in his production of Dodsworth (1936). Goldwyn was touched by Astor’s fight for the custody of her child, and was willing to overlook her past mistakes. Some of Astor’s best films were made after the scandal subsided, including The Maltese Falcon (1941), in which she played the gloriously untrustworthy Brigid O’Shaughnessy opposite Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, and The Great Lie (1941), in which she played a supremely truculent concert pianist (and won an Academy Award in the bargain). Seemingly getting better as she got older, Astor spent the final phase of her career playing spiteful or snobbish mothers, with one atypical role as murderer Robert Wagner’s slow-on-the-uptake mom in A Kiss Before Dying (1956). A lifelong aspiring writer, Astor wrote two entertaining and insightful books on her career, My Story and A Life on Film. Retiring after the film Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1966), Astor fell victim to health complications and financial tangles, compelling her to spend her last years in a small but comfortable bungalow on the grounds of the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital.