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24 July 2014
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Art from Different Fronts of World War One

By Roger Tolson
'The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors' by Sir William Orpen
'The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919' by Sir William Orpen, Imperial War Museum ©
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The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919
Detail showing politicians about to sign peace agreement
Detail showing politicians signing agreement ©
In monetary terms, this was the most important British painting commission of the war (costing £3,000, compared to the £300 that ‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent had cost) and was to record the roles of the politicians, diplomats and military during the peace negotiations at the end of World War One.

The work depicts the moment of resolution, when the leading Allied politicians demonstrate their determination and unity, as well their political power, as the treaty is signed. The setting is the dazzling Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, built by Louis XIV at vast expense, as a demonstration of his own political power.

Above the delegates' heads reads the legend 'Le roy gouverne par lui même', a pointed reference to their endless squabbling, as Germany claimed not to be able to meet the penalties imposed and the Allies were unable to agree a compromise.

Detail showing the inscription 'le roy gouverne par lui même'
This detail shows artist's comment on the squabbling at the conference ©
In Orpen’s vision, it is the extravagance of the architecture that sets the scene, reducing the politicians to a footnote. Their supposedly ordered world is distorted and broken by the mirrors behind them. In them we see the artist's reflection twice and also, more significantly, the absence of any other audience. Nobody is watching. This is shallow politics, mere posturing and an indication that the political forces and personal vanities that shaped the palace are still present.

Posturing politics
The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 allowed the victorious Allied nations to resolve the end of World War One, to apportion blame and financial responsibility, and to demand reparations from Germany. They also addressed wider issues such as forming the League of Nations and the creation of new nation states. Complex negotiations tried to match public desire for reparations to Germany’s willingness and ability to pay.
 
The artist
The Irish artist William Orpen (1878-1931) was a hugely successful society painter, and one of the first artists to be appointed as a war artist by the British Department of Information in 1917. He remained in France longer than any other artist: 'I have never been so interested in my life', he wrote.

He received a further commission from the Ministry of Information, supported by Lloyd George, to record the Peace Conference. Orpen produced three paintings of the conference, but he grew disillusioned with the posturing of the delegates and painted them out of the final canvas, replacing them with a memorial to the common soldier.

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