This 1928 portrait was taken during the second phase of conductor Leopold Stokowski’s career, that is, after his divorce from Olga Samaroff and during a period of increasing fame. The photograph is currently on view, as part of the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition "Edward Steichen: Portraits."
This image is much as Stokowski liked to picture himself: large, mysterious, and with the potential for much excitement beneath the surface. Physically, he was six feet, two inches tall, and lithe, and his blond hair, swept straight back, gave him an imposing and apparition-like presence. Over and over again, biographers write of his “golden hair” and allude to him as an Apollo.
Stokowski, for his own part, was very aware of his appearance. Abram Chasins, composer, friend, and Stokowski biographer, records that in 1929, during Stokowski’s tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra, an assistant came in to prepare the conductor for an event. The maestro insisted that his hair be combed without a part and straight back from the brow, saying, “That is how a conductor should look.”
Beginning in 1912, Stokowski’s work with the Philadelphia Orchestra yielded many superlatives, although he met with the same challenges that art institutions still face today: an an integral part of Philadelphia’s cultural face, the orchestra still had to rely on private funding and ticket sales to get by. The board also questioned Stokowski’s inventive scope of programming, and often he was presented with requests to play works from the traditional canon—works by such greats as Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. Stokowski, however, was unrelenting in his pursuit of new works and in his desire to expose the audience to contemporary serious music.
Chasins records an episode in which the conductor refused to back down from his intention to close a performance with the very modern and quite cacophonous Schoenberg work, Kammersymphonie Number One:
This last, very cerebral work, although not atonal, proved unbearably dissonant, and the Academy’s audience loudly voiced its displeasure during the performance. I was told that in the middle, Stokowski strode off the stage in a fury. When quiet was restored, he returned and started it again from the very beginning. At its conclusion, an intimidated audience, fearful of a third repetition, offered some dutiful applause.
Leopold Stokowski understood the importance of new media forms and, although reluctant to do so at first, eventually embraced recording technology; he assisted in the process of many advancements in recording orchestral works. One of his most well-known endeavors was his collaboration with Walt Disney in the late 1930s in the creation of Fantasia, which premiered to admiring audiences in 1940. And although Fantasia’s animation is its claim to greatness, one of the most memorable moments in the film is the entrance of Mickey Mouse’s silhouette onto the conductor’s pedestal. The equally distinct silhouette of Stokowski is seen then leaning over to shake hands with his friend Mickey, symbolizing Fantasia’s fusion of imagination and art, animation and life, and the unreal and the real.
Perhaps the best tribute ever paid to the conductor was from his friend Sergei Rachmaninoff, who said of Stokowski and his orchestral interpretations, “Stokowski has created a living thing. He knows what you want, he puts it in, and he infuses vitality into every phrase.”
Abram Chasins, Leopold Stokowski: A Profile (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1979).
Listen here and learn more about Leopold Stokowski, from NPG Researcher Warren Perry (8:03)
Leopold Antoni Stanislaw Boleslawowicz Stokowski/Edward Steichen, 1928/National Portrait Gallery/Acquired in memory of Agnes and Eugene Meyer through the generosity of Katharine Graham and the New York Community Trust, The Island Fund