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William Orpen

Willliam Newenham Montague Orpen (Dublin, 1878 — London, 1931) was a somewhat oaffish and unfaithful Anglo-irish prat. But we’ll include him here anyway: there are plenty others of his ilk on this site already.

Orpen, already established as a leading painter, came to Paris in the company of fellow Anglo-Irishman Hugh Lane in September 1904. With the latter beginning to build his collection of great masterpieces of French Impressionism, the two men visited the gallery of the main dealer in Impressionist art, Durant-Ruel, at 16 rue Laffitte (9th arrondissement).

Having resigned from his teaching position at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin in 1915, Orpen managed to have himself appointed official war artist on the Western Front by pulling some strings (for which he was much resented by other artists). It was in this role that he made several visits to the battlefields of France and Belgium from April 1917 on, with frequent excursions to Paris. In between painting, Orpen did his fair share of heavy drinking and womanising, possibly picking up an STD for his troubles. In any case, Orpen was an inverterate chaud lapin, as this little ditty, written to his friend Philip Sassoon, testifies:

 The Majestic, avenue Kléber
Philip, at such times as this
would I find some wonderous miss
and plunge upon her with a kiss
and quiver in that warm abyss
and thrust and strike and never miss
until I found that slumbrous bliss
of satisfied desire.

In August 1918, during the great Allied counteroffensives that would lead to the armistice two months later, Orpen was staying one night in Paris during which there were two German air raids, “and in the morning I heard Big Bertha for the first time, and when we left about 10 o’clock, just past St. Denis, a Boche ‘plane came over to see where the shells were falling.” 
In December 1918, he received a letter to travel to Versailles to paint the Peace Conference. Fouquet’s on the Champs Elysées subsequently became a regular watering hole for Orpen and the posse of British journalists that he frequented. “Great,” he writes, “were the meetings at Fouquet’s before lunch”. Orpen thus became a trailblazer for James Joyce, who was to become a regular client of Fouquet’s when he lived in the area in the early 1930s. But, for the most part, Orpen's life in Paris mostly consisted of painting Peace Conference delegates at his studio at the Hotel Astoria at 133 Champs Elysées (8th arrondissement, building no longer exists). or attending peace treaty discussions in the Salon de l’Horloge at the Quai d’Orsay, home of the French foreign ministry. There, Orpen found it amusing to listen to the preposterous Georges Clemenceau “putting the fear of death into delegates of the smaller nations if they talked too long”.

Orpen was unable to gain admittance to the Trianon palace in Versailles when the Allies officially handed peace terms to the German delegates, but did manage to convince several statesmen to sit for him, including US president Woodward Wilson and the Irish-born Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, who was to be assassinated by the IRA in London in 1922. This was to be Orpen’s world until the Peace Conference ended in 1921. It was a very well paid one too, for Orpen, at the height of his fame, was taking in £45,000 per year (equivalent to £1.6 million today). ”Orpen, the pet of the bourgeoisie, seemed ever preoccupied with rich and, I suspect, influential people and one saw little of him,” said fellow painter and rival Augustus John, who was also in Paris at this time. 
 Orpen painting of Treaty signing

Orpen said he found the peace treaty discussions and the eventual handing over of peace terms to the Germans “all rather rough-and-tumble affairs”, while the actual signing of the Peace Treaty itself on June 28, 1919 “had not as much dignity as a sale at Christie’s”. With much difficulty, Orpen managed on that fateful day to get through the immense crowds congregated around the Palace of Versailles and into the Hall of Mirrors, where the Treaty was to be signed. Orpen took up position in the centre window of the giant Hall to commence painting the scene, but was continually ordered away from this prize spot by guards who had been ordered to save this location for “two grubby-looking men” who happened to be “old country friends” of Clemenceau’s. Nevertheless, Orpen managed to work, although he found the whole event an anti-climax.

 Fouquet's on the Champs Elysée
During his Paris sojourn, which was to stretch at least until 1924, Orpen stayed in the Hôtel Majestic at 19, Avenue Kléber (16th arrondissement, later to become famous as the home of the German military High Command during the Occupation). He also frequented the Hôtel Chatham at 17-19 rue Danou (2nd arrondissement), which had a famous bar frequented by Anglo-Saxon expatriates, and where he seems to have kept a love nest for himself and his young lover, Yvonne Aubicq—who, naturally, he was careful not to mention in his war memoir (Orpen was still married at this time). Orpen painted Aubicq in many poses, and entitled one portrait of her ‘A spy’. He told the War Information Department, for which he officially worked, that the subject of the painting in question was indeed a German spy who had been condemned to death. She was, Orpen told the bureaucrats, stood in front of a firing squad dressed in a fur coat, which at the last moment she dropped to reveal she was wearing nothing underneath. This yarn earned Orpen a reprimand from the War Office, with only his impeccable contacts preventing him from being barred from France.

Orpen stayed on in Paris for several years after the end of the Peace Conference and attended the trial in Versailles of the notorious swindler and wife killer Henri Landru, Orpen died a chronic alcoholic in London in 1931.


Select Bibliography

An Onlooker in France, 1917-1919 (1921)

William Orpen

Orpen: Mirror to an Age (1981)

Bruce Arnold

William Orpen: Politics, Sex and Death (2005)

Robert Upstone and others