Opera: Character, with Chi-chi

Every morning at 9 o'clock during 1960, Private Jean-Pierre Ponelle of the French army reported in smock and fatigues to an art studio on the military compound at Baden-Baden. Shortly afterward, his commander, General Paul Vanuxem, appeared and watched for hours as Ponelle, a onetime student of Leger, painted a 30-foot, three-paneled canvas glorifying the French army. A few months after Ponelle finished the mammoth triptych, Vanuxem was arrested as a secret leader of the O.A.S. and jailed, winning acquittal only after a two-year fight. The painting he commissioned was installed in a...