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Thursday, April 2, 2015

William Orpen

Job, 1905, Sir William Orpen, human suffering stripped bare.                       
Dead Germans in a Trench,
 1918, William Orpen
Thankfully, about fifty years ago, some very wise military official at the Pentagon decided that art and war don't mix. Today, I doubt there's a single nation on earth which hasn't come to that same conclusion. However, as recently as the Vietnam War during the 1960s, the U.S. Army was still sending artist-soldiers to the war zone to make sketches and preliminary drawings. These they took to Hawaii for seventy-five days where they completed their paintings, before turning them over to the Army's war museum. I'm not sure if someone decided it was a dumb idea to start with, a waste of time, effort, and money, not to mention a needless risk of lives; or if the longstanding tradition had been too longstanding. Perhaps artists began to resist the propagandizing of heroic warfare in favor of vividly depicting the waste and brutality of war, thus making the whole effort seem counterproductive. In any case, what with the modern advances in color photography, and motion pictures, there were more valid and practical means by which to record the horrors of combat.
Zonnebeke, 1918, William Orpen
William Orpen, Self-portrait
with Sowing New Seed, 1916.
The decision was a long time in coming. Though there was a certain amount of crude photography and even motion pictures as far back as World War I, most of the images of that war which come to mind, first came to the eyes and minds of artists sent into combat. The British were especially fond of this habit; and one of the best they sent was William Newenham Montague Orpen. His images stand out insofar as war art (not the art of war) in that they are so nakedly honest. At a time when nations still went to war for "God and Country" rather than oil and imaginary weapons of mass destruction, Orpen painted the contradictory ironies of war, the desperation, the suffering, the scars, the dead, the dying, and all the other ugliness which, until then, was either ignored or censored by those who viewed warfare as simply a political bludgeon.

Portrait of Grace, the Artist's First Wife, 1907, William Orpen.
They were married in 1901 and had three daughters.
Mrs. Ruby Melvill, 1920, William Orpen
Orpen's self-portrait (above, right) with his dour, cynical expression, might suggest he was the perfect man for such work. But that wasn't really the case. William Orpen was something of a high-living society portrait artist, more adept at wooing beautiful women (above), charming them into looking charming themselves, then deftly capturing that elegance and charm with paint on canvas. He was equally at home with the likes of John Singer Sargent and Walter Sickert, neither of whom likely knew a hand grenade from a wine bottle. Orpen was an Irishman from Dublin, born in 1878, the youngest son of a lawyer and a bishop's daughter. Both his parents being amateur painters. Orpen grew up in a family environment of wealth and privilege. His training in art began in Dublin at thirteen and ended eight years later at London's prestigious Slade School of Art. Insofar as his style and content of his early work were concerned, Orpen was something of a show-off, playing around with fake painted frames, convex mirrors, and six-foot wide scenes from Hamlet. In other words, Orpen had what it took to get noticed. The old saying, "it's not what you know, but who you know," or for a portrait artist "not so much how you paint but who you paint," pretty much says it all in explaining the rapid rise of the ambitious young charmer from Ireland.

The Refugee, 1917, William Orpen
The Refugee, 1918, William Orpen
Winston Churchill,
1916, William Orpen
If his family and social connections served him well in obtaining portrait commissions, when war came, they also allowed him to wheedle a commission in the British army as a war artist. Despite delicate social refinements of his profession, Orpen was far from a shrinking violet. Besides, painting a war is a lot easier and safer than fighting in one. Perhaps, but Orpen soon found out the differences were mostly superficial. For a time, Orpen had to be satisfied with clerical duties during which he concentrated on painting portraits of those, such as Winston Churchill (right) who might move his career along, and most of all, get him to the front lines where he might really make a name for himself. In January, 1916, Orpen finally got his chance. While the other wartime artists were given an honorary rank of second lieutenant and restricted to three weeks visiting the front lines, Orpen was made a major and allowed unspecified leave to be at the Front. Another officer was appointed as his military aide, a car and driver were made available in France while Orpen paid for a personal assistant (called a batman) to accompany them.

Tanks, 1917, watercolor, William Orpen.
Once in France, Orpen travelled to the Somme, setting up his base in Amiens. He arrived three weeks after the Germans had pulled back to the Hindenburg Line. Each day Orpen would be driven to locations such as Thiepval, Beaumont-Hamel, or Ovillers-la-Boisselle to sketch Allied troops or German prisoners, recording the devastation left on the battlefields amid the frozen, desolate landscape. However he didn't submit any of his work. When reprimanded for that, Orpen had his friends at the top move the reprimanding officer to other duties. In May 1917, he painted a portrait of his boss, Sir Hugh Trenchard, the commander of the Royal Flying Corps. The image was widely reproduced in British newspapers and magazines.

Thiepval, 1917, Sir William Orpen
Blown Up Mad, 1917, William Orpen
Orpen saw the war-torn landscape as a massive graveyard. During the summer of 1917, the only people he saw on the empty battlefields were burial parties working to identify and inter the thousands of bodies left in open, abandoned trenches. He frequently encountered dead bodies and human remains, often little more, he wrote, than, "skulls, bones, garments" (above). Orpen pushed himself to find artistic and pictorial strategies adequate to horrors he saw. He stopped using half-tones and half-shades and adopted a new palette of colors--weak purples, mauves and bright green, with large white spaces representing the effect of bright sunlight on the chalk soil, contrasting with a strong cobalt blue sky. Orpen also encountered the "living dead," soldiers who had been traumatized by the fighting. He made, several powerful paintings based on these meetings much like Blown Up Mad (left) from 1917.

Peace Conference, Quai d'Orsay, 1919, William Orpen

Portrait Of Woodrow Wilson,
1919, William Orpen
When the war ended, Orpen's paintings were an immense hit with the public at several London gallery shows, which put him in the enviable position of remaining in Paris to, in a sense, "paint the peace," or at least what the Allies naively hoped would be a lasting piece. Three major works along with several lesser portraits of those dictating "peace" terms to Germany evolved. Of these latter works, Orpen's famous Portrait of President Woodrow Wilson (right), which today hangs in the White House is considered his best. In addition, two giant canvases depict conference diplomats assembled at the Quai d'Orsay in Paris (above) where much of the negotiations were carried on, and the more famous (and thus more familiar) The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June, 1919,  (below). Besides individual life-size portraits, the two giant "peace paintings" contained dozens of small portraits, each of which demanded private sittings with the artist. William Orpen was one busy portrait painter for a while. He died while visiting London in 1931.

The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June, 1919, William Orpen
(Detail) The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors (above), 1919, William Orpen


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