To tell the truth, I had heard of William Orpen, but not really opened my eyes to him and his paintiings. He always seemed to me to be somewhere out on the Irish sidelines of all that was exciting in European art early in the 20th Century.
It’s only in the last year or so that I have come to research him and his work in any methodical manner, and the more I learned about him, the more I began to like him as a man as well as a painter.
Orpen managed to cram an awful lot of painting into his relatively short life.
He worked hard and fast, with the result that there is a tremendous amount of material available to us today, despite the efforts to trash his work and his reputation as one of Europe’s finest portrait painters, after his death in 1931. Remember that this is the man whom John Singer Sargent regarded as his rightful successor, and this fact alone makes it hard to fathom Orpen’s relative obscurity today.
Let’s start our discovery of Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen by concentrating here on some of his large number of self portraits.
Now Orpen’s frequent paintings of himself do not mean that he was a narcissist, far from it. It was more a way for him to metaphorically pinch himself from time to time, and reflect in paint about the whirlwind of events that crowded his life.
Take a look at this pen and ink self portrait from an illustrated letter he sent in 1909, when he was a teacher at the Metropolitain School of Art in Dublin, where he himself had been a student only eight years earlier.
The following quoted insight is from a recent Christie’s auction catalogue describing Self Portrait Looking in a Mirror: “Orpen was intensely self-conscious of his looks, an obsession which was in part rooted in his overhearing a conversation between his parents discussing why it was that he was so ugly and the rest of the children so good looking. “I began to think I was a black blot on the earth.”
He was in reality striking in appearance with intense blue eyes, chestnut brown hair and boyish looks which lasted into his late forties, but his deep-felt insecurity often surfaced in his self-portraits. Despite being known as a ‘realist’ who painted objects and people as he saw them, he often exaggerated his own features, and in Self-portrait Looking in a Mirror, he makes a comical reference to his ‘unprepossessing’ looks. Orpen had a great sense of humour, joking his way through life and nicknaming himself ‘ickle Orps’. (He was only 5ft 3″, or 1.6metres)
If you stop and consider what Orpen is presenting here in this 1912 portrait, you soon realise that he is playing some subtle and intricate games with the viewer. The first picture in this piece (top of this post) showed Orpen in a mirror, but with none of the painting equipment you’d expect in a self portrait. Just Orpen, with his legs apart, and framed by a mirror. We see what he sees as if he were not painting.
Now in the 1912 picture above, Orpen takes this idea a step further by incorporating real life objects into the framing of the image of himself. There’s a cheque and a page from his diary as well as a ferry ticket and some Engaged Seat notices. These objects almost obscure the image of the painter, who seems to be ducking down, rag in hand, ready to wipe the image clean.
A couple more pictures from the same location and time, but less playful in their composition:
Orpen obviously enjoyed these mindbending exercises. Take a look at this:
Orpen also enjoyed dressing up. Here’s a painting of himself echoing a self portrait by Jean-Baptiste Chardin from 1771. Orpen wore this outfit to the Chelsea Arts Club ball in 1908.
Self Portrait with Glasses 1908
The next picture, entitled “Ready To Start” contains more dressing up, but this time, it’s for real. Orpen became a war artist at the end of 1916. His fellow artists were Paul Nash, Muirhead Bone and Wyndham Lewis.
Recently arrived in France, he lays out soda siphon, wine bottles, a glass, several books, and maps of France, indicating that it was quite possible to have a comfortable time just a few miles from the front. By the time the First World War was over 2 terrible years later, Orpen came to regret this naive stance.
Ready To Start 1917
Another similar self portrait from the same era, with a less cosy background:
Self Portrait in Helmet 1917
There’s a subtle comparison between Orpen, safe in his tin hat, and the other two helmets in the background.
Orpen wanted to be identified with the resurgence of Irish national identity so he produced this self portrait:
The Man From Aran 1909
It’s difficult to find any evidence that Orpen ever went to Aran.
We’d better have a quick bio here in order to provide a bit of context.
Orpen was born at Stillorgan, a suburb of Dublin, on 27 November 1878, the youngest son of a Dublin solicitor.
He was an infant prodigy, and was accepted into Dublin’s School of Art when aged only eleven.
(Metropolitan School of Art)
Six years later he entered Slade School of Fine Art where he studied under Henry Tonks.
Slade School of Art, London (1897-1899)
Recommended by John Singer Sargent, Orpen achieved rapid initial success and established for himself a reputation as a portrait artist
1899 Orpen became a friend of Augustus John and joined the New English Art Club
In 1917 Orpen was appointed an Official War Artist.
1919 Orpen was elected Royal Academician.
After the war, Orpen enjoys success as a prodigiously prolific portrait painter, producing over 600 portraits until his death at the age of 53, in 1931.
Orpen was financially one of the most successful, and eventually one of the most honoured, portrait painters working in Britain in the 20th century.
And now, to finish this initial posting, take a minute to look at William Orpen’s most tender and self-forgiving self portrait.
Unfortunately, I could only find a black and white halftone, copied from a book for an illustration.
It was to be Orpen’s last self portrait, done in the year of his death, 1931.
I include it because it shows the evident charm of the man which will feature in our next look at William Orpen: The Women!!