Painters I Should Have Known About (006) William Orpen, part 1

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Self Portrait in Mirror 1910
(Click on thumbnails to enlarge)

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.

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Self Portrait Looking in a Mirror 1909

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)

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Self Portrait 1912

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:

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Summer Afternoon 1913

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The Studio 1913 (?)

Orpen obviously enjoyed these mindbending exercises. Take a look at this:

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Self Portrait, Multiple Mirrors 1924

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.
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Self Portrait with Glasses 1908

Here’s the original:
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Autoportrait in Pastels 1771

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.
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Ready To Start 1917

Another similar self portrait from the same era, with a less cosy background:
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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:
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The Man From Aran 1909
It’s difficult to find any evidence that Orpen ever went to Aran.

This isn’t a self portrait as such, but I include it to give an indication of how popular William Orpen became in his lifetime.
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Cigarette Card ( I presume this was post WW1)

To balance all this self portraiture, have a look at some photos of William Orpen from 1903 and 1908.
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Studio Photo 1903

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Studio Photo 1908

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!!

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Apres Le Bain 1931

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  1. [...] I hope you got a good feeling about William Orpen, (the man), as well as Orpen (the painter) from my previous post about Orpen and his series of intriguing self portraits here, because now we are going to study: Orpen and his Women! [...]

  2. [...] You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here. [...]

  3. [...] If you want to go back to the original series of posts, you can find Part 1, dealing with Orpen’s self portraits here, Part 2 called “Orpen and his women” here, and Part 3, covering his work as a war artist here. [...]

  4. [...] dived into the Artist Suppliers section to see if I could find any more information about William Orpen’s brother in law, Jack Knewstub, one of the co-founders of the Chenil Gallery in Chelsea. The [...]

5 Comments

  1. Hello Michael.
    I really enjoyed reading your blog article on William Orpen. Can I ask is one of your interests the use of textiles etc. in art? The reason I ask is that I have become very interested in Orpen’s work recently, specifically his featuring of a goatskin jerkin in at least three portraits during WWI. I liked your comments on ‘Ready to Start’ 1917. I don’t know a great deal about Orpen but thought the power of this painting lay in the juxtaposition of the comfortable, pleasant interior and his clothing, particularly the shrapnel helmet and goatskin jerkin, which is an animal skin, drawing a contrast between civilisation and the barbarism and anamilistic behaviour which he would presumably soon witness. I felt this reading of the work was partly backed up by the title and the rather apprehensive or uncertain expression on his face, but I’m guessing and thought perhaps you have more autobiographical background info on this work. I also wondered if he used the goatskin in ‘Self Portrait in Helmet’ 1917, as he felt it had some connotations with the type of peasant, guerilla fighters portrayed by Goya in the Peninsula War?
    I have created a website on the Scottish sculptor Alexander Carrick (I included the address above) and have included some notes on Carrick’s use of a goatskin jerkin on several of his sculptures…you can see this in the section on the Killin war memorial, in the ‘Stone Age’ section of the site. As far as I know Orpen and Carrick are the only two artists who seem to have adopted the goatskin jerkin as a feature in their wwi works and was interested in their reasons for this choice in clothing.
    Sorry, hope I’m not rambling on! But I would be be very interested if you have any opinions on this.
    Also can I ask if you had permission to use these images on your blog? Or did you just go ahead and use them anyway ;->
    Its just I would like to use ‘Ready to Start’ on my Carrick website but as far as I know the Imperial War Museum own it and they charge £80 for using any of their images…which is a lot for a non profit making website like mine!
    Anyway again sorry if I’ve rambled on!
    All the best.
    Jim McGinlay

    Posted 19 August, 2007 at 8:47 pm | Permalink
  2. michael

    @Jim – I’ve sent you an e-mail with my best conjectural ideas.
    In (very) short: – I think Orpen liked to dress up. There’s enough evidence in his many self portraits to show that he loved to play with identity, and when combined with his strong anti-authoritarian streak, the result is a person who won’t be happy wearing a regular standard uniform like everyone else.

    I don’t think his wearing a goat (or sheepskin?) gilet signifies anything deeper than that, in that I can’t find evidence to better my supposition here.

    Posted 20 August, 2007 at 1:59 am | Permalink
  3. michael

    @Jim – As to permissions; I do not seek permissions.

    As far as I know, and as far as my ethics dictate, I do no harm.
    I do not deprive anyone of anything that is already in the public domain, and I hope that by freely adding and collating contextual material to artist’s works, that I amplify understanding of those artists, and their lives, and their works.

    In my own small way, I aspire to enrich people, not impoverish them.

    I make no money from this site, so I cannot take somebody else’s “share” of the ideas aired herein.

    If anybody objects to this behaviour by asking me to take down material that they claim to own, even if they did not create it themselves, I will reasonably comply with their wishes.

    In this new era, publication now means publicly sharing ideas, and contributing to the collective interpretation of those ideas.

    “Ownership” is moving away from the old model of “Retention at all costs”.

    Posted 20 August, 2007 at 2:28 am | Permalink
  4. Min

    Hi Michael,

    Recently, I saw the potrait, Apres le Bain in Dunedin Art Gallery, New Zealand. It was 800 x 640mm. The eyes were piercing, after all these years.

    I’m writing an essay about Orpen, am wondering if you can share your sources with me?

    Thanks.

    Regards,
    Min

    Posted 28 July, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  5. James Birkin

    Thank you for this – some things I did not know (and ought to have) – and Vivien St G was my grandmother. Re Jim Mc Ginlay – I visited Orpen’s grave in Putney the day he was out of copyright – but of course the photo of the orpen is a itself an image so I suspect only images of the actual picture would be OK.

    Posted 4 October, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

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