signed u.r.: ORPEN
Neptune Gallery, Dublin, whence purchased circa 1950, and thence by descent to the present owner
As an Official War Artist, in the midst of the horror of the Western Front, Orpen encountered Yvonne Aubicq, (1895-1973) a beautiful French girl whose father was apparently the mayor of Lille. The exact circumstances of their meeting are obscure - the painter was suffering from blood poisoning – a possible byproduct of the severe emotional trauma of the vast panorama of devastation and death. Conscious of his forthcoming exhibition of war canvases, booked with Agnew’s in the spring of 1918, and anxious to include two recent portraits of Yvonne, he foolishly cast her in the role of a German spy. Had she first played the part of a nun or a nurse, there would not have been a problem, but pictures of a glamorous spy, accompanied by a fanciful tale of capture and execution, immediately aroused the military censers. After lengthy interrogation Orpen was obliged to re-title his first portraits of Yvonne as The Refugee.
She acted nevertheless as the painter’s muse throughout the aftermath years when he was residing in Paris and working on his commemorative portraits of the Peace Conference. As an antidote to this task of historic documentation, Orpen painted Yvonne in a series of nudes, the most extraordinary of which, Amiens 1914, or The Rape, (Private Collection), is a symbolic conflation of the rape of land and body. Yvonne, the 'spy', the refugee, the rape victim, and the artist’s model is thus closely woven into the tapestry of Orpen’s work during and after the Great War. In this period, she had one further part to play – that of the nun. In 1919, Orpen re-presented her as such in two contrasting portraits, one showing Yvonne against a white background (sold in these rooms, May 10th 1989, lot 44), which he gave to her, and the other, the present canvas which he retained for himself.
The picture amply demonstrates Orpen’s life-long interest in bold contrasts, derived from his early fascination for the School of Seville and confirmed when he visited the Prado in 1904. Zurbaran’s canvases depicting the miracles of St Bruno would, even in reproduction, be considered influential. Such works are likely to have inspired Orpen’s own adoption of Carthusian robes for a series of self-portraits around 1906. In the years before the Easter Rising he had been deeply involved in reviving religious art and in works like The Western Wedding 1914 (destroyed) and Nude Pattern, The Holy Well, 1916 (Coll.National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) had directly engaged Ireland’s spiritual heritage. While like Yeats and other Celtic Revival leaders, Orpen had approached these subjects from a Protestant background, he had seen his own pupils such as Sean Keating, in The Feast of Bridget, 1918, (Private Collection) taking up themes of Catholic piety.
Thus, for Orpen the choice of the Nun’s habit was not arbitrary - it was highly significant. Nor is it by chance that this was the portrait of Yvonne that he chose to hang in his studio. For this was “Eve“, as Orpen actually called her, and as he saw her. The nun, dressed totally in white, not only accentuated her natural beauty - she did not wear make-up - but also her inner character. Everyone who met her was drawn in, not only by this beauty, but also by her disarming nature and charming air of naïveté. It is true that she had a sense of mischievous fun that matched the artist’s, but she also possessed an unworldliness and innocence.
Of the two portraits of Yvonne dressed as a Nun, the present example is undoubtedly the more austere. Yet beyond the stark simplification of black and white, the subtle observation of the fall of light across the face, coupled with the careful management of warm and cool greys in the surplus, provide ample evidence of Orpen’s mastery. Where the white-on-white version is a careful rendering of Yvonne’s features, the air of mystery in the present example confirms the painter’s deep fascination for the sitter and the shadows which began to close in the late twenties. Of the two, this example was retained by the painter and it hung above his mantelpiece in South Bolton Gardens (fig 1).
The Orpen Research Project
The present work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the Oil Paintings of Sir William Orpen, R.A., R.H.A., (1878 - 1931), currently being prepared by Christopher Pearson of the Orpen Research Project.
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