Sir William Orpen, R.H.A., R.A. (1878-1931)
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Sir William Orpen, R.H.A., R.A. (1878-1931)

The Painter; self-portrait with glasses

Sir William Orpen, R.H.A., R.A. (1878-1931)
The Painter; self-portrait with glasses
oil on canvas
35½ x 27½ in. (92 x 70 cm.)
Painted in 1907
probably, the artist's Studio Book, as The Painter, recorded as exhibited at the Chenil Gallery, London, and purchased by Charles Hughes for £70 in Autumn 1907.
The Executors of Charles Hughes (+); Christie's, London, 7 March 1919, lot 99 (210gns. to Ernest Brown and Phillips).
Sir Donald Anderson, and by descent.
The Artist's Studio Book, 13/09-1907.
P.G. Konody and S. Dark, Sir William Orpen Artist & Man, London, 1932, pp. 267, 281.
probably, London, Chenil Gallery.
Manchester, Art Gallery, Autumn, 1910, no. 24.
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Lot Essay

This highly accomplished and intriguing self-portrait is one of the earliest of a series of slightly different versions on the same theme, executed between about 1907 and 1925.1 In these we find the artist, dressed in a woollen dressing gown, with a white handkerchief tied about his head and wearing small, round spectacles on his nose or pushed up onto his forehead. In all cases he is holding a paintbrush, and in some, a palette, and other brushes can also be seen. Throughout his life Orpen produced close to forty self-portraits, in oils and watercolour. He also produced numerous drawings of himself to illustrate incidents and moods, as marginalia in his correspondence.2 Although he could appear in many guises, 'Orpen as Artist' was perhaps the most enduring of his self-portrait themes. Time and again he would include studio paraphernalia in his self-portraits, and on occasion would incorporate self-portraits, as an aside, within other works and commissions, simply as a means of exposing the artifice of picture-making. For the device of showing himself painting, he often employed a convex mirror or a glass globe. This obvious underscoring of his artistic identity was fundamental to his character.3

The present portrait is thus an act of great sophistication. Its confident bravado avoids egotistical self-indulgence. The brushstrokes demonstrate flamboyance, the contrast between the light and dark areas, subtlety, and the little touches of colour, of blue, red, and yellow, on the palette, allude to the source of inspiration. Orpen was preoccupied with perfecting the language of paint. Other aspects of the painting reveal the depth of his artistic scholarship in this regard. The whimsical humour of fancy dress - referring to the attributes of the romantic artist - are nevertheless selected with deep seriousness.4

Orpen's headgear is particularly revealing. The handkerchief and glasses, worn in a characteristically quizzical way, are directly derived from the three late pastel self-portraits of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779)5, all of which are now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. Orpen could have seen at least two of these since they had been acquired in 1839. It is obvious that he was very taken with Chardin; to him he represented the consummate artist, and one within whose image and reputation he happily associated himself, throughout his career.6 Discovered in the early years of the century, Chardin would continue to inspire him in the 1920s. It may also have been the superficial resemblance between the two artists that may have contributed to his choice of the French master. In the Outline of Art, which Orpen edited, and which continued to be reprinted for twenty years after his death, we get some idea of the importance he attached to Chardin. This painter had the capacity to reveal 'the loveliness in the common things of life'. Although Orpen may not have actually written these words, as editor, he would have agreed with the sentiment.7

There are examples of Orpen adapting Chardin compositions from c. 1905 - especially in the Lottie of Paradise Walk series (see note 6) - but in these self-portraits he was trying to emulate the master himself and not just his works. The appropriation of Chardin's self-image reminded Frank Rutter of the range and depth of Orpen's knowledge. He noted, 'Orpen was not altogether unmindful of the fashion in which Hogarth, Richard Wilson, and other eighteenth-century artists had painted their own portraits. In this portrait [referring to Man With Paintbrush, 1925 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)], Orpen takes his place, in more senses than one, alongside the greatest of his predecessors. While in this self-portrait Orpen showed his reverence and respect for the great traditions of the past'.8

The head and shoulders self-portraits of Chardin cannot account for Orpen's attachment to the white (later yellow) dressing gown. In part, Orpen may have been inspired by the garment itself, with its hood and tassel. The white gown seems to have first appeared in The Reflection, 1906 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), where it is worn by one of Orpen's professional models, Florence (Flossie) Burnett. The same model may also have worn it in Girl With Cherries, c. 1906 (Mildura Arts Centre, Mildura, Australia). The robe recalls the famous images of the French writer Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), dressed as a Dominican monk, in the simple white habit in which he wrote his classic novels. If he was not aware of the original paintings and photographs of Balzac, Orpen would certainly have known about the controversy over Rodin's Monument to Balzac, which created a public furore after it was first unveiled at the Salon of 1898. Rodin dismissed his earlier heroic nude versions of the monumental figure, in order to show the writer swathed in his monk's habit. From the description by Roger Marx, in Le Voltaire, 23 February 18929, one can easily understand such a robe's appeal and significance to a studious and focused professional like Orpen, 'A maquette exists, very finished and well-defined - superb in fact. It portrays Balzac draped in a Dominican habit, the shroud which that single-minded and industrious thinker always wore, like the monks of olden times. And since the capacious secular robe is timeless, thought becomes generalized and the only idea suggested by the costume is that of solitary toil, of labours resumed each daybreak without respite or intermission'. It was in about 1897 that William Rothenstein, Orpen's close associate, soon to become his brother-in-law, was visiting the great sculptor to draw his portrait and persuade him to show at the Carfax Gallery. Rodin was later to be fêted in London when he took the reins of the presidency of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in 1904, a position he still held when Orpen became an associate in January 1907, the year of the present work.
The questions about identity which the present self-portrait provokes, are further refined in the comparison with Myself and Venus, 1907 (Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin). This was intended, for a very different public, that of Ireland and Dublin and it was probably commissioned, or at least suggested, by his friend Hugh Lane, the collector, connoisseur, and dealer. Myself and Venus was exhibited as part of the series of Portraits of Contemporary Irishmen and Women in the Lane gallery. It is not too fanciful to suggest that the romantic garb of the present work marked it out for a London, rather than Dublin audience. The London art world was becoming more open to new ideas and the stranglehold of the stagnant Royal Academy had been broken by the radicalism of the New English Art Club, the International Society et al. The Dublin task, by contrast, was of a different order. London's greater cosmopolitanism as an art capital meant that for its addressees, Orpen wanted to portray himself as a master painter, a descendant of the Old Masters. Painting was a serious business, and seriousness did not necessarily preclude humour, irony and clever quotation to which a London audience might be receptive. These attributes were in any case, Orpen's stock in trade. London collectors were sophisticated, they had knowledge, and there was a chance that the deeper problems of identity alluded to in the present work would find a receptive audience.

We are very grateful to the Orpen Research Project for providing the above catalogue entry.

1 The picture dates to 1907 and is one the first of a series he did dressed up in the same manner. A second, slightly smaller version, which may have been a study for this work was sold by the artist in 1927 to the Australian, Senator R.D. Elliott, and is now in the collection of the Mildura Arts Centre, Mildura, Australia. It depicts the artist, half-length holding the palette and a single paintbrush. There is a full-length and more elaborate version, with the self-portrait being reproduced on the canvas on the easel, in the background, dating from 1908, in the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, fig. 2. Orpen is standing, holding a palette and several brushes, including long-handled brushes, which also alludes to a painting style adopted by the Old Masters. The long handle would allow the artist to distance himself from the canvas. This had two advantages, it allowed the artist longer and more sweeping strokes, whilst also allowing him to view the work from a distance from which the composition can better be judged. Finally, there is the famous portrait specifically painted for the Uffizi in Florence (1925). This is a half-length with Orpen seated, but differs in the fact that the spectacles are pushed up onto the forehead. It is also a portrait that demonstrates Orpen's mischievous sense of humour. He is holding his left hand up, holding a paintbrush which points upwards between thumb and forefinger. Also his little finger is extended upwards, whilst the middle fingers and thumb are tucked in. Thus, by replacing the brush with the forefinger he emulates a gesture, which, to the Italians, is considered rude and offensive. Orpen had been extended the invitation by the Uffizi to contribute a self-portrait to the sala dei pittori according to Konody, 'a distinction reserved exclusively for the most famous artists of their time and country' (op. cit., p. 240). In addition, Orpen includes a similar 'Chardin' image of himself in a still life composition of his studio, also entitled The Reflection, 1908, (private collection), where he shows himself as he paints, reflected in a glass globe.

2 Paul G. Konody says of Orpen's penchant for this genre, 'It is no more than may be expected that these chapters of fanciful autobiography should, almost without exception, rank amongst Orpen's finest achievements, for they are conceived in experimental vein and painted with an enthusiasm, undamped by the restraint imposed upon the professional portrait painter by his sense of duty to his sitters' [op. cit., p. 240].

3 Orpen painted at least fourteen self-portraits where he makes reference to himself as artist, along with at least a further eight where he has included himself as a reflection of the artist at work.

4 Orpen chose Chardin as the theme for one of the Chelsea Arts Balls (year unknown), as can be seen in the drawing, The Chelsea Arts Ball (private collection: Pyms Gallery, Autumn Anthology, London, 1983, no. 26, illustrated). Orpen portrays himself and a partner (probably his wife, Grace) attending dressed as Chardin and a nun. The nun's habit is totally white, but Orpen as Chardin, wears a black gown but retains the headgear of the 'Chardin' portraits.

5 The three works are Chardin Wearing Spectacles, 1771; Chardin Wearing an Eyeshade, 1775; and Chardin at His Easel, 1779 (fig. 1).

6 Orpen would often place visual references in his works, which could be taken as a tribute acknowledging the debt owed to those painters, including himself, he had used as sources of inspiration. This is by no means unique to Orpen, similar visual references can be detected in the works of many other artists, for instance, the Impressionists, including Manet. Compare for instance Manet's The Laundry, 1875 (Merion, Pennsylvania: The Barnes Foundation), with Chardin's Washerwoman, c. 1734 (National Museum, Stockholm), or his Old Musician, c. 1860 (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) with Le Nain's Old Piper (untraced), or his Philosopher [with Hat], 1865 (Art Institute of Chicago), with Velasquez's Menippus, c. 1639-41 (Museo del Prado, Madrid). In doing likewise Orpen was simply preserving this tradition. Compare for instance, Orpen's At the Tub (Lottie of Paradise Walk), 1905 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) with Manet's The Laundry, 1875, and The Wash House, 1905 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) with Chardin's Washerwoman, c. 1734. Also compare the figure hanging up the clothes in the background of Orpen's Resting, 1905 (Ulster Museum and Art Gallery, Belfast), with the similar figure in Chardin's Washerwoman.

7 In Outline of Art, Chardin was referred to as 'genius' and his pictures were 'tainted with democracy'. In his 'intense humanity' he is likened to William Hogarth, and Lady Dilke is quoted as saying of him, he 'treated subjects of the humblest and most unpretentious class, he brought to their rendering, …… a perfectionf workmananship by which everything he handled was clothed in beauty'. Finally the writer sums him up in the following words, 'Amid all the artificiality of the gaudy Court of Versailles, Chardin stands out as the supreme interpreter of the sweetness and sane beauty of domesticity. He was a poet with the unspoilt heart of a child who could reveal to us the loveliness in the common things of life' (Sir William Orpen (ed.), Outline of Art, London, c, 1923, p. 277).

8 Frank Rutter, 'Orpen's Self-Portraits', Strand Magazine, London, March 1932, p. 274.

9 Quoted in Bernard Champignuelle, Rodin, London, 1967, p. 176, translated from the French by J. Maxwell Brownjohn.


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