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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

William Quiller Orchardson

Toilers of the Sea, 1870, Sir William Quiller Orchardson
This is about as exciting and colorful as he ever gets.
Music, When Soft Voices Die,
Vibrates in the Memory--Shelly.
Sir William Quiller Orchardson
When people think of artists, particularly painters, they generally picture a person with a vibrant, outgoing personality, what we often term a "people person." That's probably not to far off insofar as most artists are concerned, but as an art instructor for a good part of my life, I can tell you that it's not a "one size fits all" assessment of artists' personalities. Although being a successful artist, especially today, demands a certain proactive determination and marketing approach; art, by its very nature also attracts individuals who wish to retreat into themselves. Many enjoy working in a soft, solitary environment, and in extreme cases, not even wanting to show their work, or at least doing so very reluctantly. It almost goes without saying that an artist's personality can be seen through his or her work. So, what type of work might such an introverted artist produce? Let's take a look at the work of the British genre painter, William Quiller Orchardson.
The Queen of Swords, 1877, Sir William Quiller Orchardson
Imagine how colorful this scene could have been in the hands of most artists.
When art historians write about artists they tend to concentrate on two areas, their work itself, coupled with the bare facts regarding the artist producing such work--background, geography, historic era, training, personal relationships, perhaps even political leanings. What they don't very often explore is the artist's personality. I suppose that's because, while the artist leaves behind his or her artistic output, and pretty much all the other relevant facts about their life becomes a matter of record, no one seems to make a point as to what the artist was "like" unless that artist was infamously famous. In those cases they tend to dwell on personality flaws, defects, and peccadillos ad-nauseam. As one can judge by his Music, When Soft Voices Die, Vibrates in the Memory--Shelly (above, left), William Quiller Orchardson was neither famous nor infamous. I can recall no other artist who ever titled a painting by quoting a Romantic poet such as Percy Bysshe Shelley. In appraising one of Orchardson's early works from 1877 The Queen of Swords (above), the word bland comes to mind.
The Marriage of Convenience, 1883, Sir William Quiller Orchardson
Sir William Quiller Orchardson
Self-portrait, 1881
Orchardson was born in 1832, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland. His father was a businessman who saw to it that his talented son began studying art at the tender age of fifteen, enrolling him in Edinburg's famous Trustees' Academy. That's when the boy's "blandness" first made itself known. He was not a particularly precocious, industrious, or apt student. The best that could be said was that he was very average. For a would-be artist, that's practically a death sentence. On top of that, he was not particularly ambitious. He was, however, something of a "quick study." By the time he was twenty, Orchardson had mastered the basics. His work was competent if not exactly eye-catching. We might best call it "conservative," both in content and especially in color. Critics have sometimes harshly referred to his paintings as being "black and white" though in fact, they were more along the lines of archival tans and brown. Reds are rare in his paintings, though his Marriage of Convenience (above), and his self-portrait (left) have a warm, reddish quality. Blues, and greens are practically non-existent in his palette.

The Young Duke, 1889, Sir William Quiller Orchardson. The "Jolly Good Fellow" humor is there, it was just too subtle for most 19th-century British patrons to appreciate.
On the North Foreland, 1890,
Sir William Quiller Orchardson.
Orchardson moved to London in 1862 where at first he was not particularly successful. He ended up renting out half his studio to a Edinburgh school friend, John Pettie, a portrait painter who in a short time, became much more successful than his old schoolmate. While most genre painters concentrate on the life and times of the middle-class and peasant stock, Orchardson devoted his time and effort to the subtle foibles of the upper classes as seen in his The Queen of Swords and The Marriage of Convenience, as well as his The Young Duke (above) from later in his career around 1889. On the North Foreland (left), from 1890, is typical of Orchardson's stylish female figures and portraits which eventually brought him popularity and success.

Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon, 1880, Sir William Quiller Orchardson.
Though little more than an unpleasant memory by the latter part of the 19th-century when Orchardson did most of his work, Napoleon Bonaparte was something of a fascination, if not an infatuation, for the artist. His Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon, (above) from 1880, might well have been painted by a Napoleonic, propaganda painter as by a proper, patriotic Englishman. Orchardson's St. Helena, 1816, Napoleon Dictating to Count Las Cases the Account of his Campaigns (below), is not only a history lesson in itself but might well be in the running for the longest title ever attached to a painting. At least in this case, Napoleon was pictured as rather pathetic rather than heroic.

St. Helena, 1816, Napoleon Dictating to Count Las Cases the Account of his Campaigns, (probably sometime during the 1880s), Sir William Quiller Orchardson.
The Farmer's Daughter, 1881,
Sir William Quiller Orchardson.
Orchardson also had a soft side. His Master Baby (below), from 1886, is heartwarming, if only just short of what we might termed "cute." Many, perhaps even most of Orchard's paintings had women as their subjects such as his 1881 The Farmer's Daughter (right), which, far from being heartwarming, or even cute, is more on the order of "sappy." Few farmers' daughters dressed so well, nor did they raise doves (or pigeons, whatever the hell those birds might be). Without a doubt, Orchardson's strongest work is his Toilers of the Sea (top) from 1870. In virtually everything else we see a man struggling against his personal nature to become the artist he wanted to be and everyone seemed to think he could be. He was not without some success in this endeavor, apparently carving out a decent living for himself and his wife, son, and daughter, while achieving full membership in the Royal Academy in 1877 (strangely, two years after he was knighted). His most important portrait commission came from Queen Victoria herself, a painting of Her Majesty and her son, the future King Edward VII. Orchardson's popularity was somewhat slow in coming, mostly after 1880, and when he "arrived" it was on his own terms. Neither his palette, his personality, nor his paintings changed much over his lifetime. He continued to paint right up to his death in 1910 at the age of seventy-eight.

Master Baby, 1886, Sir William Quiller Orchardson.
Sir William Quiller Orchardson,
caricature, Sir Leslie Ward.



  1. Looks like a Jamie Wyeth palette.
    He is well regarded with a dull palette?
    On the Foreland reminds one of Christina's World.
    Though Christina has the more emotional story once you are told it.

  2. Bryan--

    I'm not sure, but I think you're confusing Jamie Wyeth with his father, Andrew, and I agree On the Foreland also reminds me of Christiana's World. As for his palette, whichever Wyeth you're referring to, color, or lack of it, is largely a subjective matter of taste. There have always been those who preferred a limited palette over those having brighter hues. It's the extremes to which most art connoisseurs object.