Self-Portraits 1900-1912 (1) Sir William Orpen


This painting of around a hundred years ago has a very striking quality and feels distinctly modern, almost contemporary. It was painted when the artist was about 32 years old. Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen, KBERARHA (27 November 1878 – 29 September 1931) was an Irish portrait painter and a friend of Augustus John whom he had met at the Slade where he had trained under Tonks and was a friend of Hugh Lane, a Cornishman who established Dublin’s Municipal gallery of Modern Art. He is considered to be a realist painter influenced by Spanish Art and deriving inspiration from French nineteenth-century painting. It is clear that in his training he had closely studied art history, was interested in interiors where Dutch painting was one influence.

Looking at this dramatic self-portrait of 1910, the viewer is struck by the posture and demeanour of the figure and the strong composition; a frame within a frame, with the Venetian blinds behind. Here the artist assumes a pose and is dressed in a bowler hat and riding habit. The artist is holding gloves and a riding crop which might easily be taken for one of the long brushes that are visible at the bottom of the painting. There is a certain romanticism about this powerful composition which conveys a superabundance of creative energy and assertion. Yet there is also a hint of self doubt about this somewhat adolescent expression. Here is the Celtic and the equivalent in painting to the poet, the writer and the dramaturge. The facial expression has been described as puckish and yet the features rather remind one of Franz Kafka. The stance may be confident but here is a person whose self-searching reveals an element of self-doubt.

This painting is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the website comments, “A shelf below the mirror holds paintbrushes and rags, the tools of the artist’s trade, as well as several bottles of liquor. Various pieces of correspondence, including an I.O.U. signed by Orpen, are tucked behind the frame of the mirror, further testifying to the pleasures and distractions of the painter’s early career. The space of the picture is shallow but complex, with Orpen using his skills as a draftsman to resolve the challenges of surface, lighting, and reflection that he has set for himself.” The composition appears vigorous partly because of the geometry. Orpen’s arm and crop point to the decanters in the foreground. The diagonals of the floor offer an intriguing contrast to the oblongs that dominate the picture. Greens and yellows dominate and there are subtler tones of intermediate whites and greys. The attention is focussed on the black hat and bowtie and in the direct expression of the eyes.

Orpen was certainly a productive painter and worked at an astonishing pace throughout his career. This painting was executed some seven years before he was to travel to the Western Front where his experiences were to deeply alter his perception and where he became a famous portrait painter of the military and the foremost politicians. The contrast between the statesman in the relative comfort ofVersaillesand the devastating landscape of the trenches and the slaughter of ordinary soldiers did not escape his notice. He was to bravely point up these differences in his controversial work. 138 pieces were donated, on the understanding they were to be displayed in simple white frames, to the British Government. These are in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

Orpen became a Royal Acaademician in 1919 and there is a considerable amount of information about him on the internet. One very interesting website is to be found at where more discussion on his self-portraits may be found in part1 of Painters I Should Have Known About (006), part1. Below are three further self-portraits Orpen completed.




4 thoughts on “Self-Portraits 1900-1912 (1) Sir William Orpen

  1. To whom it may concern,

    I have read some background information about Sir William Orpen specifically in relation to his large paintings (around 138 in total) of the Versaille Peace Conference (also known as the Paris Peace Conference). The information I read also included that most of these works were given to the British government on the understanding that they should be framed in simple white frames and kept together as a body of work.

    I would like to know why it was requested that the works of art should be framed in simple white frames. I can guess why but would like to find out what the official reason was if possible.

    I am busy preparing a talk on the subject of ‘The Art of Presentation’ (Mounting, Framing, Display and Exhibition) and will be talking briefly about some of the work of Sir William Orpen who was once President of the Devon Art Society and to whom I will be presenting my talk too. I am therefore intrigued to learn why he requested the works of art I have referred to above to be framed in simple white frames.

    Can you please help me to find the answer?

    Thank you for your kind assistance.

    Laurence St Croix
    MA (RCA)

    1. Hello Laurence,

      Thanks for your interest. I am currently making enquiries that may shed some light on this. I would think the Imperial War Museum might be able to help although currently closed for 6 months to the public!

    2. Hello again Laurence,

      A friend who is more knowledgeable in these matters comments:-

      “The request was Orpen’s. The works were mainly studies etc. and therefore not require full display frames and there were financial constraints with the commission. The simple white frames would also emphasize the pomp and gilded excesses of Versaille depicted where the leaders decided the fate of their nations with little regard for those who had fought and died at their command. Orpen, along with many of the writers, seems to have been greatly offended by this contrast. The only accounts of the project I have are in The War Artists by Meirion and Harries and John Rothenstein’s Modern English Painters (included even though O was Irish!)”

      I hope this may help you further,

      Regards George

  2. Hi George,
    Thank you very much for your reply regarding Sir William Orpen – White picture frames.
    I have also received a number of replies from other sources which you may find interesting reading:

    The ‘138’ William Orpen paintings to which you referred to in your email are the works created by the artist while serving as an official war artist on the Western Front between 1917 and 1918. Orpen intended that his war works be kept together and made a ‘gift to the nation’, for this reason the paintings were framed in white (an unusual colour) in order that they be identified as belonging to said gift. 133 Orpen war works were gifted by the artist to IWM by in 1918, these were followed by three large canvases created in response to the Peace Treaties in Paris in 1919.
    Imperial War Museum , London

    I have done extensive research on Sir William Orpen (a very great and important artist). I have the volume of commentaries edited and published by his widow. I find nothing anywhere about framing. I am not personally surprised by his insistence on “simple white frames.” This fits in with his love of the straightforward and direct. Orpen did not fit any mould. I can see how his work would look well in a “simple white frame.” Like a mat. The conventional wisdom is that a gilded frame increases the warmth and richness of a portrait. But a simple white frame would set off an Orpen well.

    An interesting Orpen vignette: One of my earliest portrait subjects was the late John Jay McCloy, prominent New York lawyer (for the Rockefeller family). He was at the Versailles Conference as an intern aide to President Woodrow Wilson (USA President 1931 1031). McCloy reported to me that he sat in the room as Orpen painted his famous portrait of President Wilson, and that the entire process took ninety minutes! That painting now hangs in the White House in Washington, DC — in a gilded frame.
    Portrait Institute, New York

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