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 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