One of Greta Garbo’s favorite paintings was Modigliani’s Portrait of a Girl, believed to be a depiction of his lover Beatrice Hastings. “Garbo would enjoy it with her evening scotch and a Nat Sherman Cigarettello that she held so elegantly with her gemstone-encrusted Van Cleef & Arpels holder,” Gray Horan, Garbo’s grandniece, tells me. The painting, an oil on cardboard, 14 inches by 10 inches, circa 1915, is part of a Modigliani exhibition that will open next week at the Nakanoshima Museum of Art, in Osaka, Japan.
“She used to call it ‘The Garbo Modigliani,’” Horan says. “I think it was because it was a painting of a woman, and it was hers and it came with a title which you know is very antiseptic.” The painting is now owned by Horan and her brothers. Their grandfather was Garbo’s brother. The Modigliani hung, along with Renoirs, Rouaults, a Bonnard, and other works of art, in Garbo’s seven-room apartment overlooking New York’s East River, where she lived for many years.
“The painting was not her favorite work,” Horan says. “It was Robert Delaunay’s Woman with a Parasol or La Parisienne. Garbo told me, ‘It makes a dour Swede happy.’”
Garbo was born in Stockholm and grew up in a four-room cold-water apartment on the fourth floor of a five-story building in one of Sweden’s shabbiest neighborhoods. In 1924 she made two silent movies in Europe, and then, in 1925, it was on to Hollywood, where she soon became known as “the Swedish sphinx” and, in the 1930s, “the screen’s first lady.”
Garbo stopped making films in 1941 and began collecting art in 1944. When she died, in 1990 at the age of 84, having never married and without children, her brother’s daughter, Gray Reisfield (Horan’s mother)—a longtime companion who was said to have looked after Garbo in her final years—was sole heir. Reisfield died in 2017.
Garbo’s main assets were in art, the bulk of which were sold at Sotheby’s in 1990 for a total of more than $19 million—an appreciation of 2,000 percent, according to Barry Paris’s biography Garbo. At the auction of about 250 items, Garbo’s blue-chip paintings—three Renoirs, a Bonnard, seven Jawlenskys, and two Rouaults—brought $16,580,000. Garbo also owned works by Soutine, Van Dongen, and André Lhote, which were sold with the Delaunay at a Christie’s auction in 2017. The Delaunay brought $3,607,500.
“I knew her as a mature woman, a woman of great elegance and physical grace,” Horan says. “And great posture. She always said, ‘Good posture rivals cosmetics.’
“She was practical and very natural and had a real appreciation of beauty. She would stop and look at natural wonders. Whereas a lot of people might rush by a flower, a tree, or landscape, she would pause, and she really liked to take that in. She responded to art and beautiful things in the same way. She enjoyed looking at things closely.
“She was always looking for something that would incorporate a particular shade of color,” Horan adds, “a sort of salmon pink that she really liked in a painting or a piece of porcelain.”
Horan also has a small painting of a white cockatoo that Garbo had owned. “The bird is perched on a branch against a vivid blue sky,” Horan says. “The painting is signed with initials, but I have yet to discover the name of the artist. She placed the bird above a painting of a little girl by the French artist Louis Valtat. I remember her pointing to the child, saying, ‘That girl just ate the last cookie, and she doesn’t think she’ll get caught.’ Then she looked at me conspiratorially and added ‘Not yet, anyway, but she can keep us guessing.’ In a wonderful way, these paintings were her friends.” —Milton Esterow
“Amedeo Modigliani” will open on April 9 at the Nakanoshima Museum of Art, in Osaka
Milton Esterow was the editor and publisher of ARTnews from 1972 to 2014. He currently contributes to The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Vanity Fair