This Raphael Kirchner Ziegfeld Follies pastel is a newly unearthed piece of New York City theater history, and a once in a generation find. Part of a suite of five illustrations which feature the erotic and luminous showgirls who starred in the legendary theater revue Ziegfeld Follies and made the name synonymous with images of the most beautiful, brazen and sensuous women in early 20th century New York. This portrait of Justine Johnstone hung in the lobby of the historic Century Theater until it shut its doors in 1936.
Florence Ziegfeld first achieved reputation as the Svengali-like manager of his tightly corseted wife Anna Held as an exotic toast of the continent, whom, he claimed loudly until the press took notice kept her porcelain skin pristine with daily milk baths. Ziegfeld found fortune extolling the sensational and scandalous habits of the beautiful showgirls he promoted and employed, creating an image of the follies girls which bordered on immoral and increased their allure. The Follies showgirls came to be known as “century girls” for their anti-Victorian spirit. The Ziegfeld Follies, with their veneration of female sexuality and promotion of new forms of pop culture, helped turn the early 20th century into an era of profound cultural change. This collection of paintings present a time capsule of that moment, and the five stars represented in these portraits are among the most enduring faces to come out of the decade.
Raphael Kirchner was born in Vienna Austria and, along with Alphonse Mucha, was one of the most renowned art nouveau postcard artists in the Vienna Secessionist movement. The visionary artist later moved to France and worked as cover artist for the wildly popular La Vie Parisienne. His radically risqué portrayals of sexually emancipated women became known as “Kirchner Girls.” His images of libertine showgirls and nude concubines (who were often shown smoking, an activity at once taboo and suggestive) found fans among the avant-garde on both sides of the Atlantic. Kirchner moved to New York City in 1915, and was soon introduced to Florence Ziegfeld by Viennese architect Josef Urban, the man responsible for the ornate design and groundbreaking style which set the Follies apart from other provocative revues of the early 20th century. Ziegfeld, always an innovator, hired Kirchner as a staff artist.
Kirchner defined a new style for the Follies that was at once erotic, boldly independent, and whimsical. Kirchner painted theater mural portraits of the leading Follies girls, illustrated programs, and even designed costumes for Ziegfeld. In their short partnership the pair refined the look of the Ziegfeld Follies and gave the show a vanguard modernist sensibility. Few examples of Kirchner’s work for Ziegfeld have ever come on the market, and a find of this magnitude has never before been offered at auction. It is incomparable with any of Kirchner’s art that has previously been available and that we were able to reference. In historical significance, provenance, and quality it is unsurpassed.
Kirchner’s innovative vision of fanciful hedonism culminated in his life size allegorical paintings featuring the seven deadly sins. Created for the 1916 production of “The Century Girl,” the works were recreated as postcards and hung in the lobby of the New Amsterdam Theater. When Kirchner died in 1917 at the age of 42, Alberto Vargas succeeded him in his position. The influence Kirchner exerted on the style and subject of Vargas’s early work is profound.
As much credit as Florence Ziegfeld receives for creating the tone and style of the Follies, and indeed much of the character of theater in the early 20th century, it was the women themselves who made the Ziegfeld Follies so captivating. Their stories are the stuff of legend, and sometimes tragedy.
Justine Johnstone appeared in the follies in 1915 and 1916. Dubbed “America’s loveliest woman” by Henry Hutt, Harrison Fisher, and Penrhyn Stanlaws, she was by far the most lauded beauty of the time. She was called at turns “Ziegfeld’s American Beauty,” “the most beautiful blonde on Broadway,” and was immortalized as the most photographed girl in New York. After finding her career typecast by her beauty, she left the theater for a career in medicine. In 1940, she was credited among the scientist who developed the five-day cure for syphilis.
The stories of these thoroughly modern and spellbinding women hold in them the sophistication of the Follies and indeed the tumultuous early 20th century as a whole. We are honored to have the rare opportunity to offer this pastel from the Century Girls collection and to bring this history out into public view for the first time since the Century Theater shut its doors in 1936.