At Large  December 21, 2022  Natasha H. Arora

Obsession with Identity: William Orpen's Portraiture

Fitzwilliam Museum

William Orpen, Self-portrait, 1924, oil on canvas, Fitzwilliam Museum

Portraits intend to be reflections of their subjects’ character, placing William Orpen’s self-portraits in the extraordinary position of being extensions of his identity. In the book, Orpen: Mirror to an Age, Bruce Arnold OBE realizes, “Not since Rembrandt has an artist so consistently examined himself and recorded his own face, as Orpen did,” and indeed, William Newenham Montague Orpen (1878-1931) obsessively and consistently redressed himself for portraiture. 

His short life, and even shorter career, began when he enrolled at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art at the age of twelve, before entering the Slade School of Art, where his career exploded into the most commercially successful portrait artist of his generation. Famed as a painter of swagger portraits (self-aggrandizing works commissioned by wealthy Edwardians), Orpen supplanted John Singer Sargent as the London elite’s favorite; enjoyed the affections and modeling of various mistresses, and seguéd into luridly realistic war art—all while balancing a contentious, dually Irish and English identity.

Despite Orpen’s prodigious education and rampant popularity, Tate director John Rothenstein declared a shallowness in Orpen’s style which, in Modern English Painters, he blames on this conflicted Irish patriotism and English gratitude. Yet Orpen’s evolving selfhood should be credited for constructing such characterized portraits; obsession with identity saturates his works, and most specifically his self-portraits—which illustrate his fascination with popular, political, and interior segments of individuality.

Wikimedia Commons

William Orpen, Homage to Manet, 1909, oil on canvas, Manchester Art Gallery

Professional success and personal turbulence colored Orpen’s early career; he ended his academic training with one of his most critically acclaimed works, The Play Scene from ‘Hamlet’ (1899), before graduating and painting The Mirror (1900), which established his thriving career as a swagger portraitist. Both pieces are overtly academic: Play Scene is based on Shakespearean scholarship, and The Mirror (starring his then-fiancée and model from Slade, Emily Scobel) uses a circular glass to reflect himself at his easel, per van Eyck’s example, and object placement per Whistler’s Mother. Though Orpen’s figure is absent from his most famous conversation piece, Homage to Manet (1909), it becomes a self-portrait by reiterating his obsession with reflection. The scene stages Irish novelist George Moore, as he reads art criticism to five of Orpen’s peers. Sitting at a table, they are beneath the watchful facsimile of Manet’s 1870 portrait of Eva Gonzalès, and all before the eye of Orpen himself.

These flamboyantly intertextual paintings affirmed Orpen’s artistic stature and prompted a catalogue of commissions. After opening a private school and studio in 1903, demand for Orpen’s society portraits swelled. He fetched enough to make himself one of the most commercially popular artists of his generation. This is a small wonder, considering the tangible legacy of Orpen’s influencers—Manet and Velázquez, to name a few—and his portraits’ intimacy. Ranging from self-images and domestic embraces in Night no. 2 (1907) to confrontational female gazes in The Angler (1912), and to Winston Churchill’s famed 1916 portrait, Orpen’s portraits are most notable for their reflection of individual identity.

Wikimedia Commons

William Orpen, In the cliffs, Dublin bay, in the morning, date unknown, oil on canvas, Sotheby's

Yet in 1915, Orphen’s focus turned from society pictures to the war effort. Appointed the Army Service Corps’ official artist, Orpen documented tragedies on both sides of the Battle of the Somme, as seen in Dead Germans in a Trench (1918). Its luridly bright color scheme gazes unflinchingly at two dead soldiers, one open-mouthed and grotesquely blue, the other face-down—a jarring vision of two personalities erased by uniforms and violence. Similarly garish, but self-referential, Orpen’s 1917 Ready to Start encompasses the efforts of an artist who paints his own workstation and reflection. There are four Orpens in this single piece: the living artist, his moving reflection, the painted image of his reflection, and the resulting oil on canvas.

Wikimedia Commons

William Orpen, Dead Germans in a Trench, 1918, oil painting, Imperial War Museum

Knighted in 1918, Orpen’s self-reflections progressed from scenes and characters of the first World War toward those of the Irish revolution. His book, Stories of Old Ireland and Myself (1924) conjures the idyllic, pre-war country which paintings like In the Cliffs, Dublin Bay, in the Morning reference. Yet while nostalgia was a difficult treasure to pursue, Orpen recorded the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, using various portraits and two group paintings: A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay, and The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors. The political strain in his art grew less salient in Orpen’s later life, and he returned to specializing in swagger portraits until his death from alcoholism in 1931.

Whether static, dynamic, meticulously staged, or en plein air, Orpen’s opus was deeply individualized, and most notably mutable. It captures his subjects in meaningful—not perpetual—moments and aspects. His self-portraits are the strongest example of this changeability and mark both various stages of his life, as well as distinct psychologies. His 1907 Self-portrait with glasses legitimizes the young man’s artistic integrity, Man from Aran (1916) places him in a mecca of Irishness, and his 1924 self-portrait encompasses the self-contained plurality with which Orpen’s paintings sing. If portraits are indeed psychological reflections of interiority, then Orpen confronts audiences with a rare study of selfhood’s dynamism. 

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