Self Portrait in Uniform 1917
Part 3. William Orpen, The War Artist.
You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
Despite being born an Irishman, Orpen threw in his lot with the English during the First World War.
In the early days, he took part in the auctioning of blank canvases on which the purchaser’s portrait would be later painted, and the money went towards the Red Cross.
By the end of 1915, however, Orpen felt driven to take a more active role in the war effort.
He was recruited as an official war artist at the end of 1916 along with Muirhead Bone, Eric Kennington, Francis Dodd, James McBey, Paul Nash, and C. R. W. Nevinson and Wyndham Lewis.
At the end of this wartime commission, 138 paintings and drawings of blasted landscapes, dead soldiers in trenches and billets behind the lines found their way back to the Imperial War Museum in London.
My Workroom at Cassel June 1917
The British Army Quartermaster-General, Sir John Cowans, whose portrait Orpen was painting at that time, promoted Orpen to Major and sent him to France in 1917, where he was to paint portraits of senior military figures.
It was thought that Orpen would be treated more seriously if he held a higher military rank.
Ready To Start June 1917
On June 10th 1917, the date of this painting, Orpen displays an almost jaunty attitude to the war, openly displaying the symbols of pleasure ( furs, whiskey bottle, soda syphon, etc.) indicating that it might be possible to have a good time not too far from the front.
His attitude was to be profoundly altered by the reality of trench warfare, however.
Lurid and disturbing colours appear in several of Orpen’s paintings of the aftermath of battle, and his work often combines this desolation with a strange sense of beauty and an unexpected decorative quality that was criticised at the time.
Lt. Col. A.N. Lee, DSO, OBE, TD Censor in France of Paintings and Drawings by Artists at the Front. 1919
Lee was the operative link between official war artists on the Western Front and their subjects, controlling both their movement and the censorship of their work. Lee and Orpen became good friends and drinking companions, and this is reflected in the informality of the portrait above.
What is immediately noticeable from Orpen’s paintings from this period is that he deliberately adopts an almost graphical simplification in his painting style.
He seems to be posterising all the blended gradient areas that would normally have been lovingly rendered as smooth transitions of colour.
This stylistic approach must have been influenced, at least in part, by the lack of time available for painting in these wartime conditions.
Orpen also seems to me to be working with a very limited palette of seven, maybe eight colours.
I’d suggest that this mix of short palette and unfussy flat painting style made for some impressively quick pictures.
Brigadier-General H J Elles, CB, DSO
Orpen was frequently obliged to go to Paris to paint the portraits of important military Top Brass.
Circumstances often meant that there was no chance for a second sitting, so Orpen had to work fast.
Even though Orpen had adopted a very stripped down approach to this type of portraiture, it’s almost certain that this one has been left unfinished (as is evident from his colour notes in the upper left), which happily gives us a very good insight into his technique of this time.
The Big Crater
We may not be aware of how much warfare was conducted underground through the use of tunnels and mines. Subterranean warfare allowed each side to make big advances at a relatively low cost in casualties.
The result of a (sometimes truly enormous) explosion was a very large crater that would rapidly change the physical layout of the battlefield, and allow new ground with its own new firing redoubt built in, to be gained with maximum surprise.
Orpen painted many of these cratered, lunar landscapes with their startlingly bright soil heaps.
Mines and the Bapaume Road, La Boisselle
A German Gunners Shelter, Warlencourt
Dead Germans in a Trench
Field Marshal Douglas Haig
There’s a startling three dimensional quality to the head in this portrait. Orpen became very good friends with Haig, whom so many later referred to as one of the “Donkeys“.
Foch was CIC of the French Army.
The NCO Pilot, RFC. (Flight Sergeant W G Bennett)
Girls College, Peronne
German Sick, Captured at Messines, in a Canadian Hospital
Mascot of The Coldstream Guards
The Main Street, Combles
Soldiers and Peasants, Cassel
The Household Brigade, Ypres Salient
Captain R Maude, DAPM, who was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Authorities, and Colonel du Tiel, Commandant d’Armes Amiens.
Members of the Allied Press
Signing of the Peace Treaty in The Hall of Mirrors, Versailles
Peace Conference, Quai d’Orsay
To the Unknown British Soldier In France (Original version)
To The Unknown British Soldier In France (Final accepted version)
He was knighted in 1918 ‘for services in connection with the war’, and his war pictures, amounting to some fifty oil paintings and seventy drawings, were exhibited at Agnews in May 1918, and seen by 10,000 people. The following year he received a further commission from the Ministry of Information, supported by Lloyd George, to record the Peace Conference in Versailles.
Following the armistice Orpen was appointed the official portrait artist at the Paris Peace Conference and was responsible for the The Signing of the Peace.
However he courted controversy when, in To the Unknown British Soldier in France, he painted a coffin flanked by winged putti and two wraith-like figures from the trench set against the splendid backdrop of the Paris Peace Conference. This comprised Orpen’s protest at the conduct of the political elite in Paris at the expense of the efforts of the common soldier in the trenches.
Unsurprisingly Orpen’s painting provoked a storm of criticism. Before it could be hung at the Royal Academy (and it was only belatedly accepted by the Imperial War Museum in London) Orpen was required to paint out the image of the dead soldiers.
In 1921 Orpen wrote a memoir of his time in France called ‘An Onlooker in France’. It included a withering criticism of the politicians responsible for the war and its far-reaching effects.
Link to some Subterranean Warfare sites.
Link to The Imperial War Museum‘s holdings of William Orpen Paintings gifted to the British Nation after WW1. (Search for the watercolours, as they have a delicacy that is in complete contrast to Orpen’s work in oils.)