Wednesday, January 22, 2014

John Decker: The Master of Satire

I came upon the work of the brilliant John Decker quite by accident a few weeks ago when I was sporadically looking up different portraits of different old Hollywood stars (as I often do). Immediately I was completely enthralled by his life work and style. But I was also confounded by my ignorance about his work. Fortunately, I am in a position to not only add to my knowledge, but to add to the knowledge of the public as well. So, here we go.
The portrait that caught my eye was a painting of one of my favorite comedic actors, William Powell. Powell's most famous role was, of course, Nick Charles in The Thin Man movies. Ever since I saw his performance in that quintessential film, and consequently his work in other films, I've been a great fan of his seemingly effortless and elegant comedy. The portrait I discovered, however, was almost as unique as Bill Powell. It was certainly his face, of that I was certain. But he was dressed in 16th century clothing. After a little cursory research, I realized that this was not a set piece. That left two alternatives. Either the piece was created digitally using some sort of photoshopping software. Because I found older photos of the portrait, I quickly eliminated this option. The second option was more attractive, but it was also more confusing: that a period portrait had been commissioned.
I quickly discovered that Powell's was not the only privately commissioned period portrait. Rather, his was almost a member of an unofficial series of portraits painted by one of Hollywood's most unique artists John Decker. Decker's life story is crazily interesting and my short post won't do justice to it, so I suggest you to check out one of the references below where I found my information and where you can find more about Decker and his art.
Decker was born in 1895 in Germany. He had a crazy childhood and somehow ended up in England where he was apprenticed to a famous art forger. Under this auspicious teacher, Decker mastered his artistic talents in theater set design as well as more discrete (and criminal) work. During the first World War, his unscrupulous acquaintances and his German heritage led him to be suspected for treason and he was briefly exiled on the Isle of Man. After the war, he migrated to the home of all artistic delinquents: Hollywood. While there, he failed to establish a successful acting career and turned once again to his artistic talents. He worked as a set painter and designer, costume sketcher, and many other artistic odd jobs. More importantly, he befriended the likes of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, and Errol Flynn (seen below with his portrait), who all shared his love of hard drinking and partying. Eventually, a group of these drinkers and jokers formed an unofficial club known as the "Bundy Drive Boys" which has since been written extensively about.

In 1929, John Decker began doing what interested me so much: portrait painting. He began painting a variety of stars and their friends. Soon, he began painting their head on the works of the Old Masters of Europe. These portraits were immensely popular and showcased the actors' own egos and Decker's own artistic talents and creativity. His subjects included Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Vincent Price, John Barrymore, and many others. Perhaps his most famous portraits were W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria and Greta Garbo as Mona Lisa. These actor/Old Masters paintings became quite his forte, and indeed are quite wonderful. Some of his portraits, which were not commissioned, got him in some legal and social trouble and he was brought to court for his sense of humor (such as Katharine Hepburn, who was horrified (and rightly so) for her terrifying portrait that Decker painted).

Decker would continue these mock-portraits throughout his career. In addition, it is whispered that he continued to work as an art forger in California but was so skilled and discrete that no one every could tell. Towards the late-30's, he began working on some "serious" high art once again. These were met with popularity and acclaim. Unfortunately, his lifestyle had taken a toll. Like his more famous friends, a lifetime of hard drinking caused his early death, at 51, in 1947.
But to return to his portraits, I'd like to examine closely two particular painting which struck me so much. They both exhibit two different approaches he took to his "Old Master" portraits. The first, in the case of the Powell portrait (below), is allusion. Powell's portrait is clearly him. His head is merely superimposed on a period body. Judging from the collar, it appears to be from the 16th century. I was able to find a slightly comparable portrait of Sir Richard Grenville that seemed somewhat similar to me, but I could not find an exact match. I am guessing that Decker sometimes merely imitated the style of great artists or eras, not just the works.

But in fact, Decker did, in fact, sometimes copy works exactly. In particular, I am thinking of one of Decker's more famous paintings, certainly more famous than the Powell portrait. It is a early '30s painting of Harpo Marx as the Gainsborough "Blue Boy" seen below. Gainsborough, the famed 18th century British portrait painter, is perhaps most famous for this particular painting, The Blue Boy, which in fact is an homage to the work of an earlier British portrait painter, Van Dyke. Decker's painting is clearly The Blue Boy with Harpo's mischievous face topping the famous body. Not only is it exceptionally funny, it shows some impressive artistic talents.

Decker's name remains slightly obscure today, which really is not that much of a surprise. Even his more theatrically talented friends like John Barrymore are not part of the public memory any more. Time has taken its toll on his reputation. But his work, when found, should be marveled over and appreciated.

References and Suggested Reading:
Bonhams Auction House (Harpo Marx Portrait)

"The Daily Mirror" By Mary Mallory (Biographical Information) 

Hollywood's Hellfire Club
by Gregory William Mank

Bohemian Rogue: The Life of Hollywood Artist John Decker
by C. Stephen Jordan

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