self portrait c1800 by john opie ra 1761 1807

Self Portrait, c.1800, by John Opie RA (1761 – 1807)


| $11,622 USD | €10,628 EUR

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A recently rediscovered self-portrait by John Opie RA, dubbed during his lifetime as ‘The Cornish Wonder’.
Opie was one of the most prolific self-portraitists of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain. Ada Earland, who published a biography and list of works by the artist in 1911, references no fewer than fifty-four self-portraits of the artist. His incessant self-examination in paint ranks him alongside artists such as Rembrandt in this regard, to whom around eighty or so have been attributed. As Earland’s references make clear, many of Opie’s remain unaccounted for and are likely preserved in private collections across the globe.
Created at the turn of the century, this image shows the artist’s likeness looming out of a unfathomable darkness. The half-turned head with its dark hair and sideburn is set against the bright white necktie which suggests the shape of the sitter’s body and jacket. The extraordinary presence of the sitter is aided by the three-dimensionality and volume of the skull, achieved by the gradual build-up of thick paint noted in the forehead. The spotlight that picks out the artist’s boldly painted head particularly evokes the spirit of Baroque painting during the seventeenth century. It was Opie’s abilities in chiaroscuro which is said to have won the praise of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who reputedly described him as ‘like Caravaggio and Velazquez in one.’ These effects were often aided with the use of bitumen, undoubtedly influenced by the experiments of Sir Joshua, and which is evident in the shadows towards the top right of this painting. The brooding spirit of early-Romanticism, through the lens of a deep knowledge of the Old Masters, is what is particularly felt in this work.
This image was created when Opie was around the age of forty and successfully placed in the London art world. Born the son of a carpenter in a tin-mining district of Cornwall before being discovered as a child prodigy. His natural gifts in drawing were discovered by Dr John Walcot (1738-1819), whose protection and patronage helped to nurture the boy’s gifts before he was brought to London in 1781 where his works caused great sensation. He quickly received the patronage of the Royal Family alongside leading figures of the nobility and cultural elites. Opie was elected an Association of the Royal Academy in 1786 and was made an RA the following year. His successful portraits of the likes of Mary Delany, Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Johnson and Henry Fuseli have become some of the most lasting and iconic images of these sitters. Although also known as an artist of historical and genre scenes, his portraits have received perhaps the most enduring interest and fame since his death. His efforts in portraiture placed him in direct competition to the likes of Thomas Lawrence, James Northcote and Henry Fuseli.
The painting offered here derives from a type Earland published alongside the frontispiece of her book on the artist. This version, which contains the basic elements of this picture, was recorded in the possession of the Opie collector R. Hall McCormick of Chicago. This prototype must have been a significant one, as a printed version of it also appears in the Lectures on Painting published posthumously in 1809. This collected edition of Opie’s lectures presented at the Royal Academy from 1805 represented a high point in respectability for the painter the reason for which it was surely chosen. Although Opie did paint himself in the guise of a painter with brushes in hand, this particular image calls to mind his striking ability in capturing both character and a living presence.
Opie’s remains were interred in the crypt of London’s St. Pauls’s Cathedral after his death at the age of 45 in 1807. This location, in the crypt next to Reynolds, demonstrated the high regard felt for the painter amongst his contemporaries.
SIZE: 31 x 26 ½ inches in what seems to be the original frame.
PROVENANCE: UK private collection
Internal Ref: Opie


Height = 79 cm (31")
Width = 67 cm (27")
Depth = 8 cm (3")

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