Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Louis Orr ~ 1876-1966

Louis Orr built a strong reputation as a print maker specializing in architectural subjects such as the bridges and cathedrals of Paris. 

Master etcher and artist Louis was born May 19, 1876 in Hartford, Connecticut.  Louis' father, uncle and grandfather were all engravers and printers. Louis's father, John H. Orr, was one of the contributing editors of the Century Dictionary for which he supplied Greek and Latin derivations. His grandfather, James W. Orr, was the Dean of American Wood Engravers and operated an extensive printing establishment in New York. He did the same thing in his birth country Ireland and in Scotland before coming to America. 

In 1892 Louis was 16 years old and lived with his family at 568 Bramhall Ave. Jersey City Heights.  That year his father died and Louis started working briefly for Mr. John F. Diemer at 71 Fulton St. New York. Towards the end of the year (from his diary), the family moved back to Hartford with his maternal family due to family turmoil after his father died. The picture on the side was drawn by Louis in  his 1892 diary. He said he was going to try and help Mr. Diemer out by creating a better way to work in the printing world and he wanted to patent it. It appears it was patented by someone else later.

Louis attended Arsenal School and was inspired to study at the Hartford Art School under Walter Griffin, in the late 1890's.  In 1906 when Louis was 30, he met Mary Batterson Beach, President of the Hartford Art Society, now the Hartford Art School, University of Hartford. Mary's father James B. Batterson (founder of Travelers Insurance Company) was an art collector and helped Louis get a $350 scholarship through other prominent people and the old Hartford Art school. The intent was that Louis would go to Lyme School for a summer study. Instead, in 1909 Louis quit his job at Plimpton's, went to Paris and made the $350 last for 22 months.  When he came back to Hartford, he worked for The Hartford Times and continued his studies at the Art Student's League.

In arouind the year 1911 Louis went back to Paris and studied at the Academie Julian under the late Jean Paul Laurens. It was also there that he met and married his wife, Gabrielle Chaumette in around 1913.  

WW1, round the year 1917,  by order of the President of France, Louis enlisted in the French military as an "official artist". He received a special pass to go to Rheims in the fall of 1917. Rheims was in the center of a big German offensive and barred to civilians. He first went to Epernay, the nearest point accessible by railroad. Per a news paper clipping,  "the French military decided he must be crazy". He was deafened by the cannonading but was set to work anyway. A piece of shrapnel hit his steel helmet but yet again he continued to work. He slept in a wine cellar. Eventually, German balloon observers spotted his large white illustration board and directed shellfire at it. The destruction of his illustration forced him to cut off the lower half of the board, hang packing paper over the remainder and made the etchings in parts. They were later glued together and shown at the Luxembourg Gallery.

At one point a gas attack forced Louis to work while wearing a gas mask. These etchings were among his finest because a correspondent of the Hartford Currant wrote at the time, "he was forced to great concentration in order not to think of the danger. Also, the result of an emotion, as he is very much in love with France and desired above all to convey a feeling of the catastrophe and loss to her and the world". After the war he returned to New York and was a star by east side art dealers. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library begged for his work. In the year of 1919 Louis was made an Officer of the French Legion of Honor. The French Government arranged for an exhibition in Paris and they acquired 11 etchings, 3 of them were of the war front. The sale brought in $250,000 for the French Red Cross. "Rheims Cathedral", "Canal de la Monnaie", "Church et St. Gilles" and "Pont Neuf" is now in the Louvre.

In 1922 his "hurried" etchings of "Louis Pasteur" was the crowning feature of the Pasteur centennial of 1922.

In 1927 Louis went back to America and made drawings of buildings at Dartmouth, Wellesley College, Wesleyan University, University of Virginia, Stamford University and 14 etchings of Port in the U.S.

In 1928, Yale University asked him to do the William Howard Taft memorial etching of the National Capital. Big Plates 18 by 26 inches used to hang in the U.S. Embassies and many congressional offices and colleges. It is not yet known if they are still hanging in those places.

In 1930 the French Government gave Louis the Cross of Officer of the French Legion of Honor.

In the 1930's Louis traveled to Spain and did pastels of the Alhambra. On return he was asked to exhibit them in Boston and New York. Louis requested that he exhibit them in Hartford first. All or most pieces were sold and he had a hard time explaining this to the Boston and New York galleries.

While in Paris, he met North Carolinian Robert Humber, who led effort in 1947 to establish N.C. Museum of Art; attorney & legislator; advocate of world and together they envisioned a large series of etchings of North Carolina landmarks. In 1940, Louis returned from Paris and settled in North Carolina where, over the next twelve years, he would complete this monumental series of 50 plates of historical sites, landscapes, houses and plantations around the state. The etchings were release in portfolios of five each year and were collected by institutions and private collectors alike. Louis chose mostly frontal and eye-level views for his North Carolina series, and he also preferred to work closely from his drawings rather than directly on the plates. Today, Louis Orr's etchings of North Carolina hang in museums, courthouses and libraries and have a distinguished place in the history of the state. The above etching is "Beaufort Port".

In 1948 Louis completed the National Fire Insurance Company etching.

In 1950 Louis returned to Hartford, Ct. His old friend Mrs. Beach assisted him by giving him a studio in her garage. Later he lived in her huge home with servants on Woodland and Niles St. In 1951 the Beach property had been acquired by the Phoenix Fire Insurance Company and was to be torn down.

In 1952 Louis did 4 etchings of the Choate School in Wallingford commissioned by Dr. Seymour St. John, headmaster.

In 1953 Louis was commissioned by the U.S. government to make etchings symbolizing unification, goodwill and peace. He spent 4 days in all hours of the night and day at the United Nations area before his pencil touched the paper. When completed they were sent to all "delegations and members, Nations and United Nations Offices".

In 1959 the etching of the United Nations Building was presented to member governments as the official representation of the international organization's mid-Manhattan home.

In 1961 Louis' wife Gabrielle died. She was buried in a cemetery near her hometown of St. Gilles southern France. Louis wrote several letters to his niece Dorothy Orr Ratchford about how much he missed his wife of 48 years. He was getting his affairs straight through his friend and American attorney Russell Porter. He had visits by Gabrielle's nephew Jacques who had "no interest in any type of culture".

In February 18, 1966 Louis Orr at the age of 89 died in his apartment in Paris, France. Funeral services were held in the American Episcopalian Cathedral on the Avenue George V. Paris. He was buried in Nimes, France beside Gabrielle.

Louis Orr achieved great success and recognition with his etchings both in Europe and the United States. He has the distinction of being the first American artist to have his works acquired by the Louvre. Many works were purchased by museums including the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Boston Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institute.


  1. Angela,
    What you have done is absolutey fantastic. I am so proud of you.

  2. How impressive! It is great to read the history of this artist.


  3. Thank you for the overview of your great-grand uncle. I was introduced to his works when I married a granddaughter of Robert Lee Humber. I have purchased some of his works from Paris since I studied there while in college. I am trying to collect all three pieces of the Reims cathedral to donate to a university for their special collections reading room along with a collection of books regarding war and peace. They convey the message of the tragedy of war so powerfully.

    1. Dear Angela,
      Thank you for creating this page about your Great Grand Uncle Louis Orr. I am a 75 year old retired Art Dealer from Richmond,Va.(founder) of "The Eric Schindler Gallery",Richmond,Va.I have bought and sold and still own etchings by your Great Grand Uncle Louis Orr.Do you know what city in North Carolina Mr.Orr lived and worked?. My Father's family as well as my first wife were born and raised in North Carolina. I hope you continue your efforts on your Great Grand Uncle Louis Orr's History - Sincerely,Ralph M.Gray

    2. Hello Mr. Gray,

      Greenville, North Carolina

  4. Thank you Carl. I might want to donate to university as well. Tell me more. Angela

  5. I have a number of Louis Orr etchings, including the portfolio Ports Of America, published by the Yale University Press in 1928. I have tried to contact YUP in vain to determine the edition size. Is it possible that the family might have this information? I believe that Louis Orr was the finest American etcher of the 20th century. His output was staggering given the meticulous detailing of each piece. You may be interested to know that a complete set of his North Carolina etchings in pristine condition recently brought $22,000 at auction. Your site is most informative and helpful. Thanks

  6. Dear Robert Strossi, IF the etching and picture of "Orr completes etching of new UN building above" above, were available do you know where can they be purchased, and how much (estimate) can they be bought for? Again only estimate.

  7. I am a pen and ink artist in Johnston county NC and viewed your uncle's etchings in the J.C. library,it inspired me to the point that I am currently working on a series of drawings of prominent architecture of my home county.I also love researching artists of his time period. Thanks for publishing this article.

  8. I wanted you to know that Louis Orr's original drawings for the NC series will begin auctioning at Brunk Auctions late this morning beginning with lot 251, the original copper plates. at this point bids can be submitted via our office (absentee only) or through Liveauctioneers.com.
    Please feel free to visit our website a www.brunkauctions.com