Monday, November 7, 2011

William Wontner, Faux Orientalist

William Clarke Wontner (1857-1930) Liked to paint beautiful English women who usually were costumed in an oriental manner. Nothing seriously wrong with that: as any magazine rack will attest, pretty girls rule, and in late 19th century Europe Orientalism continued to be a popular painting genre.

Apparently Wontner had a good thing going because he painted many images in one-third length portrait fashion. Seen in isolation, this isn't in itself a problem, but his formula becomes obvious when several are seen at the same time. Take a look:

An Emerald Eyed Beauty
The Elegant Beauty
The Fair Persian
The Turban

Wontner didn't follow that formula exclusively. Below are images that feature some variety.

Lady of Baghdad
The Jade Necklace

Wontner treated flesh and fabric with skill. He also avoided the "classical" version of the female face that was fashionable over much of the 19th century in some artistic corners. That is, the faces he painted are more like what we encounter daily. Moreover, he included hints of individuality and personality.

Lacking is any sense of psychological or narrative depth to his subjects: it's largely a case of decoration. And there's the matter of his models being obviously English rather than from Persia, Baghdad or whatever part of the Middle East the costuming suggested.

Apart from technique, it's hard to take Wontner's work seriously, pretty though it (and his subjects) might be.


mike shupp said...

The odd thing is, I think, is that he killed himself with his titles. "The Turban." "TheJade Necklace." "An Emerald Eyed Beauty."

It's hard to care. If they'd been "Lady Bettina Wapham", "Miss Eileen Ferrill," "Mrs. Edna Gathers on her 30th Birthday" and so on, we'd look at this paintings much more earnestly, likely with much more approval.

Donald Pittenger said...

Mike -- That's a good point you made. Next: Get more variety in the source of the costumes and in the stone used in the backdrops?

Anonymous said...

Well, yes, but then he'd have been a different guy. I suppose the question is whether he was cold bloodedly aiming for a particular market segment or whether the orientalism was actually something that personally appealed to him.

It's perhaps relevent that other -- and greater -- English artists of this time period were influenced by Japanese and Chinese art, without harm to their reputations, so Wontner was working in a vacuum. But they chose to swim with strong srokes in an alien sea, painting landscapes and urban scenes with oriental brush techniques and outlines and perhaps subjects. "Lady of Baghdad" has some interest, but Wontner's figures and bland settings are ... lacking in daring. Jugding from you show here, he waded.

I concur with your judgement.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about this, but Google is choking on my comments right now. It wants me to start a blog, and isn't interested in doing anything else, no matter how I try.

-- mike shupp