Ever since a bunch of bohos started to democratize painting with a little thing called modernism, portraiture has been looked upon as a kind of stonemasonry in the art world: workmanlike, lucrative, and useful to the wealthy few who commissioned it, but not very creative stuff. It was in this environment that William F. Draper, a Navy officer turned courtier to the political elite, came to be known as "the dean of American portraiture" until his death Oct. 26.
Born in 1912 in Massachusetts, Draper studied art at Harvard College, New York's National Academy of Design, and then in France and Spain before finding his true calling. Commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy in 1942, he was assigned as "an official combat artist," an obscure commission that sent him to equally obscure corners of the earth, to memorialize the toils and spoils of the American military. From a frozen foxhole in the Aleutian Islands, he painted the Japanese attack on the Alaskan island of Amchitka. In Saipan and Guam, he was on hand to depict the landing of the Marines. And in between, he documented the lives of grunts at rest, playing cards on a conquered beachhead, boxing on the deck of the U.S.S. Tennessee.
His paintings were surprisingly brusque but subtle works of combat art, deploying unusually impressionistic brush strokes and nuances of color. While his contemporaries, like Army cartoonist Bill Mauldin (who himself died in January 2003), were going for sarcastic wit and gritty vérité, Draper displayed a view of military life that was shockingly poetic. His "Hangar Deck of Carrier" from 1944 portrays sailors toiling over airplane machinery with all the lionizing affection that George Bellows held for prizefighters and teamsters. "Inferno," painted the same year, depicted the conflagration of a Saipan sugar mill with an expressive brio rarely found outside the rain-slicked nighttime streetscapes of Van Gogh.
Perhaps because of this golden worldview, Draper was tapped to paint portraits of the Navy's top brass — Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Adm. William F. Halsey — and subsequently was commissioned to complete murals for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. By this time, Draper had reached the highest rank that portrait artists had aspired to, almost as a custom, for centuries: working as the aesthetic attendant to the moneymakers and powerbrokers of his day. Settling into his Park Avenue studio after the war, Draper dutifully captured the formal poses of political and cultural celebrities of all stripes, in each instance creating paintings during what a friend would later recall as "a five-day affair," beginning with a blank canvas on Monday morning and wrapping up by dinnertime Friday. Over the decades, Draper painted official portraits of John F. Kennedy (1962), the Shah of Iran (1967), novelist James Michener (1979), Richard Nixon (1981), and Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes (1986), whose likeness remains in the collection of the Maryland State Archives.
The artist's altruistic vision was certainly well-suited to the craft of portrait painting. His post-Watergate Nixon sits confident and relaxed, his face full of color, next to a flag that bears the presidential seal. His Kennedy looks out from the canvas with crafty eyes and a readied pose that suggests the young president is about to leap from his seat. And in keeping with his war-era work, Draper's portraits were painterly without being flashy, betraying the obvious hand of the artist in his brushwork — even leaving bare bits of canvas here and there — but never drawing attention to himself. This has perhaps always been the portraitist's highest injunction, and William F. Draper appeared to live by it: Never outshine — or become more famous than — the people who sit for you.