Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

Sir William Orpen – The Official Artist of The First World War

20th century

Sir William Orpen – The Official Artist of The First World War

Initially known for society portraits, Sir William Orpen (the knighthood came after the end of the war) became an official artist of the First World War and produced work of such stunning, yet horrific reality, that they still have the power to shock today.

Sir William Orpen, Self Portrait, (1917) Imperial War Museum, London

Three paintings in particular draw us into the the differences that this war brought to our understanding of how it should be portrayed.  In the past, artists were expected to produce scenes showing the glory of war, patriotism and heroism in equal measure. In the preface of his memoir, ‘An Onlooker in France 1917-1919’, Orpen said, “The only thought I wish to convey is my sincere thanks for the wonderful opportunity that was given to me to look on and see the fighting man, and to learn to revere and worship him.”  Regardless of whether he was looking at the British or German sides of the conflict, Orpen revered the human sacrifice with a steely determination to ‘tell it like it is’.

Dead Germans in a Trench (1918)

Sir William Orpen, Dead Germans in a Trench (1918), Imperial War Museum, London


This painting was reluctantly passed by the official censor after Orpen used his connection to the Director of Military Intelligence to ask him to intervene in the censor’s decision to ban this painting.  Understandably, the censor would not have been happy with Orpen’s decision to show a sympathetic response to the German dead, but this scene of quiet decay after the war machine has moved on, cannot fail to evoke sympathy.  The lighting of this scene is incredibly stark, creating a calcified effect. Orpen uses no half-tones, the blue-green depicts the decay of the two men left behind. The bright light does not allow us to push them into the shadows.  This was the reality, and this is how Orpen wished us to see the consequences of what was taking place.

Zonnebeke (1918)

Sir William Orpen, Zonnebeke, 1918, Tate Gallery, Presented by Diana Olivier 2001 https://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07694

In his memoir, Orpen wrote: “‘I remember an officer saying to me, Paint the Somme? I could do it from memory – just a flat horizon line and mudholes and water, and the stumps of a few battered trees.’ but one could not paint the smell.”  In Zonnebeke, Orpen records the battleground where the Fifth Battle of Ypres had taken place; and if ever a painting might affect all of the sense, it is this one.  Orpen spoke of the scenes he had witnessed and brought to life on this canvas: “A hand lying on the duckboards, a Bosche and a Highlander locked in a deadly embrace at the edge of Highwood; the ‘Cough-Drop’ with the stench coming from its watery bottom; the shell-holes with the shapes of bodies faintly showing through the putrid water – all these things made one think terribly of what human beings had been through.”

To the Unknown Soldier (1921)

Sir William Orpen, To the Unknown Soldier (1921-28) Imperial War Museum, London


Commissioned after the war by the Imperial War Museum to create work that celebrated the peace process, Orpen found himself increasingly disillusioned.  Having been asked to paint individual portraits of all the political leaders attending the Peace Conference, Orpen was growing increasingly disillusioned with what he described at the ‘frock coats’ taking all the glory and the ones who died and who suffered to bring about the peace, were being forgotten.

In this his third canvas on the subject, Orpen began another panorama of those who had taken part in the Peace Conference, but then painted everyone out and replaced it with the coffin of the unknown soldier, covered with a Union Jack, two semi-naked guards and cherubs floating above in the Hall of Peace at the Palace of Versailles:

Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20880

To the Unknown British Soldier in France, Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM ART 4438)


The guards were based on Orpen’s earlier work, entitled ‘Blown Up’ and clearly Orpen was keeping to the idea of “looking on and see the fighting man” and thereby honouring him in this way.

image: a full length depiction of a soldier, seemingly shell-shocked, standing in front of the edge of a dugout. It seems that his clothes have literally been blown away from his body, for he is naked but for a scrap of blanket across his hips, his boots and helmet. He stands in a classical pose holding the rifle delicately in his fingers and pointed away from his body. The ground is littered with... Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20754

Sir William Orpen, Blown Up, Imperial War Museum

The Imperial War Museum, however, were not impressed and they rejected the painting saying, “It did not show what we wished shown,” and they withheld the final payment due to the artist.


In 1928, in tribute to General Haig, Orpen painted out the figures, leaving the memorial to the war dead in solitary position, thereby changing the work from a condemnation of the reality of war, to a homage to the soldier-hero.

Orpen did not shirk from what he felt was his responsibility to the fallen and the wounded and his work is testament to that belief.

Find out more:

 


 

 

Teacher by trade; art lover by choice. Like all manner of artists and movements but somehow always end up back in 1910!

Comments

More in 20th century

  • A group of young children eating chips at the seaside. A group of young children eating chips at the seaside.

    20th century

    Sun, Sand and the Sound of the Sea – The Great British Summer Captured in Snapshots

    By

    As a born and bred Brit, the meaning of summer for me is quite simple. Get the shorts on, get the sunglasses out and get down to the seaside. Regardless of what country you grew up in, there really isn’t anything like the feel of sand...

  • 20th century

    Jeanne Hébuterne. Not Only a Muse but an Artist in Her Own Right

    By

    This post is not going to be about the tragic love story between Jeanne and Amedeo Modigliani (who wants to read about it, click here). This post is going to be about Jeanne the artist. Jeanne committed suicide at the age of 21. As Christie’s Paris...

  • Come out to play Clifford and Rosemary Ellis Come out to play Clifford and Rosemary Ellis

    20th century

    Take a Trip with Rosemary Ellis

    By

    As we head into summer holiday season, let’s take a look back at the gorgeous travel posters designed by British artist Rosemary Ellis. One of the most prominent illustrators of her age, Rosemary Ellis is not a household name – but she should be! Rosemary (maiden...

  • dailyart

    The Surrealistic World of Dora Maar

    By

    The name Dora Maar (1907 – 1997) reminds most people of Picasso. But as well as being his muse and lover, she was also an ambitious and progressive artist. Before they had even met, she was already known as a Surrealist photographer and stood up for...

  • Art History 101

    Art Afterpieces. How Internet Didn’t Come up with Anything New

    By

    Playing with the greatest masterpieces by adding to them contemporary elements, like inserting a smartphone into a hand of a Pre-Raphaelite lady, might seem an invention made a couple of years ago. Well, it is not. Ward Kimball, cartoonist employed by the Walt Disney Company from...

To Top

Just to let you know, DailyArt Magazine’s website uses cookies to personalise content and adverts, to provide social media features and to analyse traffic. Read cookies policy