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, KBE, RA, RHA (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 www.articlesandtexticles.co.uk/2006/06/ 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.