This post is part of a series I'll be writing called The Royal Decade. A staple of pieces chronicling key events, faces and fashions from the 1950s to the 1990s. Each decade will have a dedicated section on the page. In time, I hope to create an archive which I hope will serve as a useful tool for both lifelong royal watchers and those completely new. Each post is written using my own collection of books, articles and trusted sources to ensure accuracy. Whilst covering the latest news is the primary goal here at The Royal Digest, the quieter August period feels like the perfect time to get this page up and running.
Cast your minds back to 1958. In Monaco, Palace officials are searching for the right person to paint the most famous woman in the world -- Princess Grace of Monaco. Grace and Rainier had just welcomed their second child, a son named Prince Albert, and a brother for Princess Caroline. They were the toast of the town not just in Monaco but across the world. Meanwhile over 4,000 miles away in Chicago, the life of a rising student artist was about to change rather dramatically...
Moroccan-born Mohamed Drisi led a fascinating life underscored by his artistic talent, passion and creativity. In 1949, a fateful meeting with respected Seattle architect Arthur L. Loveless would change Mohamed's life forever, with the friendship leading to a bond akin to that of adoptive father and adopted son (in later times, Mohamed's children would refer to Arthur as Grandpa Loveless). Arthur sponsored Mohammed and helped him emigrate to the United States where he was drafted into the US Army and sent to fight in the Korean war. His immediately recognisable artistic skills meant he was quickly assigned to cartography and flew with reconnaissance aircraft to survey landscapes and routes and draw maps for troops to use. Following the completion of his service, it was time to pursue his dream and commence studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SIAC).
In Mohamed's senior year, several events led to a number of changes in his life. One of his captivating paintings garnered a $3,000 prize which was "very special" for the budding artist. From there, he graduate and married his fellow art student Nanette, with whom he would spend his life and have four cherished children. As the newlyweds were settling into married life, one day and quite unexpectedly, a letter from Europe arrived. Of course Mohammed was aware of Hollywood star Grace Kelly, now the Princess of Monaco. Never in a million years did he expected to open the envelope and find a request from her lady-in-waiting.
Thanks to the aforementioned fellowship prize money Mohamed won, it meant both he and Nanette could take the trip of a lifetime for the commission of a lifetime.
Upon arriving in glamorous Monaco, Drisi found Grace to be "as wonderful as she looks". Speaking to the Chicago Tribune at the time, he continued: "She is absolutely, simply unpretentious and genuine. I could have had no sitter who cooperated any more fully." Grace left it entirely to the artist to dictate the number of required sittings per week. In fact, he had a pass ensuring 24-hour access, meaning he could walk the Palace halls to access the studio without any delays or time constraints. "The Princess knew I liked to work at night; I still have my pass somewhere," he told the newspaper.
The Drisis subsequently spent almost six months living in the principality. An amazing adventure in a visual hub of inspiration for the young artists. Mohamed joked later: "We were pretty good with that $3000 dollars." Of the experience, Nanette recalled the time with a great deal of fondness: "It greatly enlarged his experience, and mine, for that matter."
How does one capture one of the most photographed women in the world? The choice was intentional, purposely allowing Grace, as just Grace, to shine. Drisi opted for the Princess to stand against an empty space in the background. Wearing a floor length satin gown, described as 'American beauty rose'. Grace wore no jewellery except her rings. Mohammed wanted "nothing to detract from her loveliness". Prince Rainier didn't see the portrait until it was completed. Drisis later revealed he was "as enthusiastic about it as Grace was". Mohamed also worked on a second portrait of Grace with Caroline and Albert. I'm not aware if it's been publicly displayed, and most likely formed a part of their private collection.
Upon returning to the US, Mohamed and Nanette founded the Drisi Studio of Fine Art in Glenwood, Illinois where the artists loved nothing more than painting their own loved ones. Mohamed's career saw him display work all over the States, with one displayed in the National Treasury in DC. He became a teacher and mentor and co-founder of the Professional Artist Alliance, which supports up and coming artists. He was inducted as a life member into the Allied Artists of America in New York. During a visit to the Drisi home, the Chicago Tribune noted a drawing of Princess Grace with toddler Princess Caroline hung framed on the wall over the fireplace, alongside a life-size portrait of a young Nanette. Decades later, he would remember Grace as very much like "any girl from the US". A Princess who I suspect very much treasured the ultimate result -- just Grace.
Today, the portrait takes pride of place at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco. Shortly after Grace's death, Rainier personally chose the library as a tribute to his wife's Irish heritage and how important the Kelly roots in Ireland were to her. I suspect the fact the portrait was chosen for the library speaks volumes to both Rainier and Grace's fondness for the piece. One can find over 12,000 rare books of significance housed there alongside the beautiful portrait -- a welcome sight for all on display.
Would you like to hear Mohamed and Nanette speak about that time first-hand? Luckily, a brief video remains available on YouTube, filmed by the SIAC, the place where it all began.
During the research of this post, I was saddened to learn Mohamed passed away last summer. Survived by his best friend, soulmate and life-partner Nanette, their beloved children and grandchildren, he's remembered not only for his contribution to the craft, but as a kind, loving and greatly missed man. I'll leave you with this beautiful portrait of Mohamed...by Nanette.