At Sea [Toby Reiter (1917–1997) — aboard the Homeric in 1965]
The discovery of the portrait painter, Christos Simatos [1900–1979], has a surprisingly unique back story. Indeed, this discovery would never have been revealed without the inquisitiveness of one man who felt a sentimental spark for one very special Simatos portrait. For nearly sixty years, Mark Neil Reiter had been living with a portrait of his mother painted by Simatos in 1965. This son appreciated the technical virtuosity with which his mother’s likeness had been rendered and was gratified by the portrait’s emotional and nostalgic ties. Then, one day, around 2016 he was inexplicably piqued by the artist’s signature. Who was Christos Simatos, the artist who captured his mother’s beauty? The flair in the artist’s distinctive signature seemed to beckon as the key to a bigger story that had been hidden for many decades. Reiter’s inquisitiveness became a challenge that turned into years of following leads as he tried to solve the mystery behind the artist. Could he find other portraits by this gifted hand? That unpretentious curiosity quickly intensified into passionate research as he found himself immersed in a global art treasure hunt. Quietly, he gathered nearly two hundred portraits and identified at least a hundred more in private hands. In short, he became an ardent art detective.

The big surprise — and what makes this story so different — is that during one special span of his career Simatos was also an itinerant painter aboard a trans-Caribbean luxury cruise ship. As Reiter continued to find more portraits, he realized he was forming a time capsule of celebrities, royalty, and the haute bourgeoisie of an era spanning from the 1920s to the late 1970s. Simatos met many of his sitters while on the Promenade Deck of the S.S. Homeric. The ship belonged to the Home Lines company, based in Genoa, Italy. This was during an era when the cruising industry was far different than it is today. Ship logs reveal that Simatos pursued this engagement as artist-in-residence from about 1955–1967, most years making several mid-winter excursions. In short, Simatos was the first artist to capture a unique slice of the characters who populated mid 20th century culture.

This unique discovery begins in 1965 when Reiter’s parents — Toby and Harry — an upper middle-class couple from suburban Long Island, were aboard the Homeric. It’s important to point out that the business of mid-20th century luxury cruising exuded an aura quite different from today’s cruise industry with its enormous floating hotels — mega-ships numbering in the hundreds and carrying millions of passengers around the globe. Today, no one with Simatos’ role would be found on board except, perhaps, a photographer. It was at the turn of the 19th century — Mark Twain’s “Gilded Age” — when luxury cruising reached its pinnacle with seven improved luxury ocean liners. Twain even lived to read about the ill-fated Titanic and the Lusitania. But in 1965, when Toby and Harry boarded the Homeric, luxury liners were just recovering from having been virtually snuffed out by two world wars. A striking example of this occurred in 1942, when the United States, attempting to support its war effort, commandeered the French super-luxury liner, the S.S. Normandie, while it was docked in New York Harbor. During its conversion to a troop ship, this Art Deco masterpiece caught fire and sank. The ship was raised, but the damage proved so extensive that it was scrapped. Later, some of the luxury cruise lines managed to thrive by promoting their voyages as vacation-adventures in opulence and pampering. As artist-in-residence, Simatos promised that a passenger’s experience would always be remembered with a unique keepsake.

Simatos was born in Greece. To date, his earliest commissioned portrait (ca.1923) places the young artist 1,500 miles northwest, in Monte Carlo. Many more commissions would follow, and his success allowed him to maintain residences in both Cannes and Paris. It was likely in one of those cities where he became best friends with Salvador Dalí and painted his portrait as well. Reiter’s collection includes portraits of many actresses, with the location identified as “Cannes.” These are dated just after World War II when the city’s film festival was building momentum. By the early 1950s, momentum had made the Cannes Film Festival an even greater international event. Simatos welcomed its booming stature, especially since it created an increasingly larger pool of prospective commissions from many well-known actors, actresses, and auteurs.

In 1963, Simatos painted the great opera star Maria Callas. That same year, the portrait was featured on the front of an invitation to a private dinner honoring her performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

After Simatos passed in 1979, the dissipation of his legacy was assured — hidden away in the homes of his numerous patrons. Considering the course of a fifty-year career, it’s reasonable to assume that his life’s work exceeded a thousand original portraits — yet most of them remain undiscovered. Reassembling enough of these portraits to make sense of his accomplishments would seem a daunting and nearly an impossible task. Plus, despite his notoriety, Simatos never documented his work. Owing to the nature of portrait commissions, it’s unsurprising that exhibitions of his works have never been identified. Plus, it appears that he never gave any interviews to the press — all but ensuring that the story of his life and career would be lost to the ages.

One of the great actresses of the 20th century, Olivia de Havilland [1916–2020] autographed and dated this work “Cannes, le 26 Mai, 1965.” This is one of the more recent additions to Reiter’s collection. De Havilland sat for Simatos while serving as the first female president of the Cannes Film Festival’s 1965 judging committee. Her portrait (painted just three months after Toby Reiter sat for hers) reminds us that de Havilland also has a connection to vacation cruising, having appeared (in 1981) as a guest star on the TV sitcom, “The Love Boat” (1977–1986). The show’s winning formula presented a weekly revolving door of guests, including a bevy of TV celebrities and many old-time Hollywood movie stars. Its popularity greatly boosted vacation cruising amongst a much larger audience — the middle class.
Reiter succeeded in acquiring many more Simatos portraits but was frustrated by the complete lack of information about the artist. Finally, he got his first break while searching the internet for cruise ephemera. He purchased a passenger’s handbook from the Homeric — a complete guide for the entire cruise — that would have sat on the nightstand in each of the ships’ staterooms. Coincidentally, it is dated the same week that Reiter’s parents traveled — departing New York City on February 21st, 1965 — with stops in Nassau, Curacao, Trinidad, Barbados, Martinique, and Puerto Rico. Moreover, the handbook was a boon to Reiter’s research. It features the only biography found on Simatos, so far (albeit a short one). This was how Reiter first learned that Simatos had, by 1965, painted many movie stars — such as Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth, and Gina Lollobrigida — plus, European and Asian royalty and nobility.

So far, the earliest Simatos portrait found was painted in 1923, and is of Sveva Caetani [1917–1994], a young Italian expatriate. As a young emerging portraitist, Simatos captured six-year-old Sveva holding her puppy. She was the daughter of an Italian nobleman who, in 1921, due to irreconcilable political differences with Italy’s fascist regime moved his family to a historic home in Vernon, British Columbia. Educated by governesses and tutors, Sveva developed into an accomplished artist, teacher, and, ultimately, a philanthropist, donating her artwork and estate to the City of Vernon. The Caetani Centre’s website noted that “in 1923, while the family was visiting Monte Carlo, an artist named Christos Simatos completed this drawing. While Sveva was first taught how to draw and paint by her governesses, Christos’ caricature of her may have contributed to piquing her interest in art, an interest which would later come to play a considerable role in Sveva’s life.” (Image courtesy The Vernon Museum and Archives, Photo No. 12685).

 

After Simatos retired from his engagement as artist-in-residence on the Homeric, there is no record of any other portraitist picking up where he left off. His legacy, now being restored by Reiter, offers intriguing insights. The dearth of biographical information about the artist is mitigated by the story behind each portrait. This research begins with identifying the sitters. One piece of the puzzle is provided when faces are recognizable. Simatos helped with this identification by occasionally writing the sitter’s name on the verso. Reiter estimates that of all the portraits he has come across, only about half of them include a date and/or a location. Paris and Cannes appear most often. Many other locations were noted, including Monte Carlo, Monaco, the Ritz-Barcelona, Cap d’Antibes, Sanremo, the Madeira Islands, Portugal, Nice, Patiala City, India, Beaulieu, England; and of course, the Homeric. Reiter remains in pursuit of all lost Simatos portraits. As more are revealed, a fuller picture of the life and work of this mysterious artist will emerge. Determined to memorialize Simatos’ legacy, Reiter has written an essay — “My Mother’s Portrait” — telling the ongoing story of his serendipitous discovery of the artist behind these portraits — a story that never ceases to inspire, motivate, and entertain him.

 

The Maharaja of Patiala

Left: The Maharaja of Patiala poses with six of his wives in London, 1931, by Herbert Vandyk [1879–1943], the Royal photographer. Right: It’s interesting that in this portrait Simatos captured The Maharajah in a more Western style of dress. The Simatos bio in the Homeric travelogue states that the Maharaja had 287 wives. However, this number likely included the concubines in his harem. It is possible that there were as many as 365 in that category (not 287) and some sources inflated the number of children as 100.

One of the Maharaja’s favorite wives was Queen Rani. While Simatos would later typically portray his Western female sitters bare-shouldered, in this portrait the young Queen Rani is framed by her vividly colored wardrobe. Her piercing, direct gaze is striking and her almond-shaped, kohl-rimmed eyes are emblematic of her culture. Her dark hair seems to shimmer in waves, rolling away from her colorful shawl-like scarf, the dupatta. The Queen’s persona is amplified by the elaborate style of her facial jewelry and pearl necklaces. The diamond cluster stud in her left nostril relates to fertility. Her nose ring — the nath — is composed of five lines of diamonds terminating in black pearls. This presents her as married as well as one who has attained a higher state of consciousness.

One patron of special note was Sir Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, India [1891-1938]. Reiter discovered that the Maharaja, instead of being referred to by the traditional title, “His Exalted Highness,” was instead known in the press as “His Exhausted Highness” owing to his prolific procreation. Reiter explains: “The Prince fathered at least 62 children in consort with his 10 Queens and upwards of 300 concubines – perhaps, explaining why, in 1938, he passed away at the young age of 46. His excessive eating habits didn’t help much, either, as sources reported his consuming a 24-egg omelet for breakfast, a luncheon of soup made from the stock of 24 snipes — and 40-50 boneless quails as a pre-dinner snack. But the Maharajah’s boundless excessiveness proved very helpful to our young artist. Starting in the mid-1930s, the Prince commissioned Simatos to memorialize — in pastel — every member of his family, plus the myriad of house guests who would drop by his 450-room palace. This was, by far, Simatos’ most expansive project, taking him three years, off and on, to complete. Another benefit of being the Maharaja’s artist-in-residence included being chauffeured around Patiala City in one of the Prince’s Rolls Royces (from his collection of twenty). Most important, this major commission embellished Simatos’ reputation with an air of notoriety, helping to launch his career as “the” portrait artist to royalty, nobility, celebrity, and those just plain old rich.”

Left: An earlier photograph of the Maharaja wearing “The Patiala Necklace” Right: An earlier Simatos portrait of the Maharaja.

The most elaborate example of the Maharaja’s persistent overindulgence is known as “The Patiala Necklace” — one of the most extraordinary pieces of jewelry ever created. In 1928, the Maharaja commissioned Cartier to fabricate this masterwork. It took three years to complete at a cost of $25 million. Its setting held 2,930 diamonds. Its centerpiece was the world’s seventh-largest diamond, a 234-carat yellow De Beers. Joining it were seven other major diamonds, ranging from 18 to 73 carats, plus several Burmese rubies. Worn by The Prince until his death in 1938, it was last seen in public in 1941 when worn by one of his sons. Around 1948, the necklace mysteriously disappeared from the Patiala National Treasury, rumored to have been sold off for tax reasons. In 1982, the De Beers diamond surfaced at Sotheby’s in Geneva where it was auctioned off for $3.16 million. Then, in a final twist, in 1998 a Cartier associate found the necklace in a second-hand jewelry shop, in London — stripped of all its major stones. Cartier bought the remains and restored it using cubic zirconia and synthetic diamonds.

Joey Singh, the Maharaja’s granddaughter, in San Francisco. In 2012, this replica of the Patiala Necklace was exhibited at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum in the exhibition, “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts.” Reiter has been in direct communication with Joey. He believes that she will prove to be the key to further unlocking the Patiala chapter in Simatos’ life. Joey still has numerous family members residing in India, along with many of the Simatos portraits he painted during his grand commission. Reiter hopes to tour this historic land, with Joey as his guide.

More Gems… 

Below is the case of another diamond necklace. This portrait was painted in Paris in 1954. It made a 21st-century appearance at auction as proof of provenance for the sitter’s 69-diamond rivière necklace. The value of necklace put it out of Reiter’s reach, but after the sale, the auction house kindly connected him with the buyer who was willing to part with the portrait. The sitter is Mrs. Coussée, whose family were innovators in manufacturing plastic furniture in post WWII Europe and owned large factories in Ronse, Belgium.

and More Celebrities

Swiss actress Ursula Andress [b.1936] became a an internationally famous sex symbol after starring as Honey Ryder in the first James Bond film, “Dr. No,” in 1962. She was a Bond girl again, in 1967, as Vesper Lynd in “Casino Royale.” In 1965, she starred alongside French actor Jean Paul Belmondo [1933–2021] in the comedy “Up to His Ears.” They soon began an intense but discreet seven-year affair. They may have sat for Simatos at the same time because both portraits are dated 1971. They broke up the next year.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the late 1960s, when this Hollywood couple was at the height of their careers. They were married from 1964 to 1974 and then remarried from 1975 to 1976. Their on again, and off again marriage was, perhaps, not quite as successful as their emotionally wrenching performances as another married couple in “Who’s Afraid of Virgina Wolf” (1966) — earning Liz her second Oscar.

… and many “Glamour Girls” 

Illustrated here are just three of many sitters that Reiter refers to as “The Glamour Girls” — for their attractiveness — a combination of their hairstyle, jewelry, and perfect makeup. All of Simatos’ portraits were painted on a universally flattering shade of cream-colored heavy paper. Backdrops, settings, locations, shading, and props were never included. Simatos rarely featured the full figure. Instead, his bust portraits were often accented by precious gem-quality jewelry. Plus, he always focused on accurately depicting of every woman’s crown — her hairstyle. These elements were essential for depicting a woman’s personal style. Ultimately, his approach to portraiture makes him more of an aesthetic descendent of Charles Dana Gibson, who beginning in America’s Gilded Age and extending into the early 20th century popularized his iconic ideal of beauty with his “Gibson Girls.” By the 1920s, Simatos was taking a photorealistic approach, avoiding the slick illustrative pin-ups of the 1940s — such as the “Vargas girls” made by his famous peer Alberto Vargas (1896–1982). Fortunately, Simatos inscribed the name of the “Glamour Girl” at left as “Dorothea Herrscher” on the verso. It was a lucky clincher for research. Reiter learned that she was Mrs. Edmond E. Herrscher, and their Beverly Hills home was featured on the cover of Architectural Digest in 1953 (Vol. XIV, No.1). The same year, Dorothea appeared on the cover of Motor Trend magazine posing beside her highly acclaimed (and now rare) Fiat 1400 Vignale. Her husband, Edmond E. Herrscher, was an attorney known as “the father of Century City” for his central role in its development.

The entire cruise delighted Toby Reiter — and she especially enjoyed her sittings with Simatos. Upon her return home, she shared with her son her distinct memory of the straightforward process Simatos implemented to capture her likeness. There were just two sittings. After the first, Simatos returned to his shipboard studio where he was assisted by a Polaroid image taken as an aide-memoire. He then completed the portrait during the second, and final, sitting. Future passengers on the Homeric would have only a few more years to sit for Simatos. It is most likely he retired to Cannes during the 1970s. That was when fleets of jumbo jets forced the cruise industry to change and adapt by appealing to the middle class. The earlier era of luxury cruising — along with a singular portraitist-in-residence amenity — slipped from memory.

Carmen Miranda, known as “The Brazilian Bombshell,” was the first great Latina pop celebrity. Singing and dancing to Samba while wearing her fruit-salad headdresses, she became an international icon. She was also a star of film and stage who, by 1945, had become the highest-paid woman in the United States.

While Reiter’s essay, “My Mother’s Portrait,” is personal, it is also an example of cultural journalism. In addition to investigating the artist’s famous sitters, his research and storytelling provide rare glimpses into the lives of many lesser known but nonetheless fascinating characters whose accomplishments would likely have gone largely unrecognized. Reiter’s essay also documents his global art treasure hunt and provides details on the lives of Simatos’ sitters, many of them long forgotten. His essay makes an appeal to all art hunters, especially those who haunt flea markets and antique shops, urging them to become familiar with Simatos’ portraiture and to join his hunt. He also puts out a call to the public, at large, asking for help in identifying the anonymous sitters seen in many portraits. And, when newly discovered portraits arise, Reiter intends to travel to meet the owners and document their acquisitions for his catalogue raisonné. Equally important, he intends to document their stories with a camera crew with a Q&A between Reiter and his fellow hunters. In addition to film (documentary and docu-series), Reiter’s story is highly adaptable to various forms of print media — magazines, newspapers, art journals, and, of course, a monograph in book form.

It is likely that art hunters have already come across other Simatos portraits but had not bothered to research their finds, simply because he is not listed in biographical dictionaries and other art references. After all, caution increases exponentially if one can’t easily find an artist’s bona fides. Without the security of a positive background check, interest in looking deeper usually fades. Numerous artists have suffered the cruel fate of falling through the cracks of art history. Relegated to a purgatory of marginalization, they fall victim to our collective memory loss — if, indeed, they had ever achieved some recognition in the first place. Most wind up in the dumpster. Without carefully looking at art, or being genuinely curious, it becomes too easy to quickly condemn a lesser-known artist’s work as lacking quality, historical significance, and value. Sadly, this condition of collective ignorance has proven ruthlessly repetitive in art history. Reiter vividly recalls the moment when his mother’s portrait sparked a journey of investigation. It was an epiphany, without which the Simatos signature would likely have remained just another undecipherable scribble beneath another unidentified face. Thankfully, this undeterred detective has added a significant portraitist to the chronicles of art history, illuminated his life’s work, and revealed the intriguing and largely untold back stories of his sitters.

— Peter Hastings Falk

 

Epilogue

This essay tells as much as is currently known about Simatos, illustrated with a selection of portraits with intriguing back stories. You can see more portraits by clicking on the tab, “The Portraits.” Moreover, Reiter’s essay — My Mother’s Portrait — features many more portraits along with their revealing histories. Most, but not all, of the portraits seen here were drawn from Reiter’s large collection. This exhibition presents a small representative selection. If you would like to read Reiter’s full essay, please send us an email and we will be pleased to forward it to him for his direct response.

Reiter explains his purpose:

My Mother’s Portrait is of general human interest — a version of the age-old headline — ‘Man Finds Priceless Art in Dumpster’ — appealing to the near-universal fantasy that any one of us can, and sometimes do, stumble upon lost or undocumented (art) treasure. My story is truly multidisciplinary — perfect as content for a Discovery-type or arts, culture, history, or news media outlet — for a documentary, a docu-series, or a feature story. Partnership with a relevant sponsor in a branded entertainment agreement is also a possibility. My story, combined with Peter Falk’s essay, could even be transformed into a piece of historical fiction.”

Note that portraits drawn from Reiter’s collection are available for exhibition.