May 1, 2004
William Draper, 90; noted portrait painter, Navy artist
By Edgar J. Driscoll, Jr.
A memorial service will be held Dec. 12 for William F. Draper, one of the nation’s leading portrait painters and an official combat artist for the US Navy during World War II. Mr. Draper, 90, a New Yorker, died Oct. 26 of heart failure.
A native of Hopedale, Mass., he painted various notables during his long and distinguished career, including Presidents Kennedy and Nixon and the Shah of Iran.
Many of his freely brushed and textured canvases can be found on the walls of Harvard University, including a portrait of former Harvard president Nathan Pusey. He also painted Dr. Charles Mayo of the Mayo Clinic, author James Michener, New York Archbishop Cardinal Terence Cooke, and New York Mayor John Lindsay, among others.
“Portraits are always a challenge. It’s like a puzzle,” the artist once said.
Paul E. Curran, a friend of 20 years, said a Draper portrait was a “five day affair,” begun on Monday and wrapped up Friday afternoon. Before he finished, he always got an objective opinion of the piece from someone who knew his subject. “He’d get an opinion of how well he portrayed the individual,” Curran said.
An artistic descendant of John Singer Sargent, who once described a portrait as a painting with “something a little wrong with the mouth,” Mr. Draper had and expressive style that was very much his own. He had his troubles with the mouth too. “The trick,” he said, “is not to paint the mouth in much detail.”
Mr. Draper was born in Hopedale on Dec. 14, 1912, the son of Clare H. Draper and Mathilda G. (Engman) Draper. He was a graduate of the Pomfret School and attended Harvard College, where he was a member of the class of 1935.
He left college at the end of his sophomore year to study painting at the National Academy of Design for two years. The he studied for a year in Paris and Spain before returning to this country to study sculpture with George Demetrios in Boston. He also painted with Henry Hensche in Provincetown for three summers and with John Corbino in Rockport.
During World War II, Mr. Draper was an official combat artist for the Navy, starting as a lieutenant junior grade and finishing as a lieutenant commander. His assignments took him from the Aleutian Islands through the southwest Pacific, where his pencil, pen, and brush recorded the invasion of Bougainville and the landings of the Marines at Saipan and Guam. He was awarded the Bronze Star.
Before returning to civilian life, and his Park Avenue studio where he continued to paint for much of the rest of his life, he painted portraits of, among others, Admirals Nimitz and Halsey and completed murals for the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. The war paintings were reproduced in four issues of National Geographic magazine and were exhibited in leading cities throughout the country and abroad.
For many years Mr. Draper showed at the Vose Galleries on Dartmouth Street, as well as at leading galleries in New York. Many of his portraits are in Boston private collections. His work was also included in group shows at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the National gallery, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the National Academy of Design.
He was also known for his limericks and jokes, family and friends said. “He was wildly fun and an eccentric character,” said his daughter Margaret Draper of Arcata, Calif.
He bred orchids for fun, co-founded the American Goldfish Society, and dug a fishpond in his backyard to display his collection,” she said.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Draper leaves a son, William, of Carbondale, Colo.; a sister, Lilla Scharnberg of Needham; and five grandchildren. He was predeceased by his daughter Francesca.
The service will be held at the Century Club in New York.
The Boston Globe, November 13, 2003