Coquelicot Art of the First World War
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  97-Orpen

William Orpen, To the Unknown British Soldier Killed in France, 1922-7, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 128.3 cm, Imperial War Museum, London (first version).

© Imperial War Museum.
 

97-Orpen

William Orpen, To the Unknown British Soldier Killed in France, 1922-7, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 128.3 cm, Imperial War Museum, London (second version).

© Imperial War Museum.

 
The death
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97 - William Orpen

Following his two large official paintings A Conference at the Quai d'Orsay and The Signing of the Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, Orpen painted a third in memory of the British Army dead. To begin with, he considered grouping together different portraits of the dead, and then he replaced them with a catafalque draped in a flag on which a helmet was placed. At least, that is what can be seen today. Initially however, Orpen had placed on either side of the coffin soldiers with shell-shocked faces, holding their guns and naked, except for a tattered blanket. Over them, two cherubs held either side of a floral wreath reaching down to the marble floor. The postures, the expressions, the nudity and the bitter irony of the symbols gave rise to extremely contrasting reactions when the painting was presented to the public in the autumn of 1923. It was seen by visitors as the most remarkable work of the year but attacked in the press on grounds of dignity and good taste. In the end, five years later, Orpen offered to make some changes to the painting, and removed the ghosts, the cherubs and the wreaths. All that remained was a solemn symbol which had lost most of its denunciatory intensity in the process.