Saturday, March 28, 2020

"Statesmen of World War I" - The National Portrait Gallery, London, England

During our visit to the National Portrait Gallery in London last August, Kimberly and I were able to view a huge portrait of British leaders from WWI, painted by Sir James Guthrie. The portrait is a great example of how to handle a group portrait while still maintaining an effective composition.

“Statesmen of World War I”
• Sir James Guthrie
• 1924-30
• Oil on Canvas
• 156”x132”
The commission for the painting was originally offered to Sir William Orpen, who declined due to other work, and Sir James Guthrie was then recommended by John Singer Sargent.

Guthrie painted a separate portrait study of each individual which he then used to create the larger work. Guthrie's study of Louis Botha was used by Sargent to create his own commissioned piece, "General Officers of World War I".

While every individual depicted in the painting is important, in order for the composition to work, a single focal point must always be defined. Former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour holds a position of prominence in the painting, standing tallest with his dark suit, but I would argue that Sir Winston Churchill is clearly the focal point. 

Through the use of value, color and vector lines (the direction of eye lines, hands, edges, etc.), a majority of the elements all lead us to Churchill's depiction. A number of other individuals look directly at him, and even Balfour's hand points directly to the future Prime Minister.

The colors and values are at their brightest and most intense surrounding Churchill. He also stares directly at the viewer, locking his gaze with ours and holding attention.

While other subjects within the painting also stare directly at the viewer, none of them have the perfect combination of value, color and vector lines that make Churchill so prominent. Without this clear hierarchy, the painting would not have such a powerful composition and hold our interest within it.

Painting photos by Saunders Fine Arts.

© Patrick and Kimberly Saunders, Patrick Saunders Fine Arts, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s authors/owners is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Patrick Saunders for painted works, or to Kimberly Saunders for photographs and/or videos, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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