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William Orpen, Irish Portrait Master

John Andrew Hamilton, Viscount Sumner by Sir William Orpen
John Andrew Hamilton, Viscount Sumner, 1931?

Irish portrait and WWI painter William Orpen was born on November 27, 1878 in Dublin. Orpen is an interesting figure in the period he was born in, and by reading his bio one gets the impression that his life may have made an interesting film. Successful during his career, Orpen painted a large amount of military and formal portraits with a freshness and candor not often seen in British painters, especially in his portraits that are "unfinished". Orpen is essentially unknown today but his work deserves merit for his immediacy and presence, no matter who he painted, and his portraiture also serves as a snapshot of an era in British history that photographs could not capture quite the same way.

In the above study of John Andrew Hamilton, Orpen achieves a strong presence with a great economy of brushstrokes. Note the stern gaze and tightness of lips that convey a figure with authority. Even with a quirky grayish-blue swash of background color and unfinished coat, this man's presence is unquestionable. Interestingly, Orpen creates a fuzzy white background by scumbling a warm white to cover up a previously darker choice. Orpen models the face with a minimum of blending that, from a distance, is spot on. Paintings such as this are inspiring because they remind us of how the depth of a portrait has everything to do with intense focus of presence and less to do with color harmony.

William Orpen Herbert Barnard John Everett
Portrait of Herbert Barnard John Everett, ca. 1909

I love the mysteriousness and elegance of this portrait. Note how this man had taken off his glove and holds it confidently with the other hand. Orpen is a master of body language, and this very subtle gesture and pose reveals much about this sitter and at the same time raises questions. Who was this gentleman? Herbert Barnard John Everett was an English marine and landscape painter, and here Orpen has captured his confidence and tallness with a quiet eloquence not often seen in portraiture. That shadow against the wall is the icing on the cake that makes this painting.

Arthur Schuster by William Orpen 1912
Sir Arthur Schuster, 1912

Fresh. This painting has such an immediacy and presence it feels like we are sitting in the room with him. That relaxed, smiling face and casual pose has the spontaneity of a photograph...the twinkle in those eyes is genuine, along with the cigarette in his hand. The brushwork of the suit is rich and simple. This time, Orpen chose a darker background to contrast with this sitter, and it works wonderfully. You can read more about Sir Arthur Schuster here.

William Orpen The Eastern Gown
The Eastern Gown, 1909

Beautiful and so sensual. This painting once again typifies Orpen's genius for body language. The drapery is nothing elaborate, but it is the mood he creates here and the world of this young woman gazing at herself in this small mirror that draws us in. The brushwork of her translucent gown shimmers suggestively, and her pose has a slightly Classical feel to it even though relaxed and spontaneous. Orpen chooses a neutral palette for the drapery to concentrate our eye on the lovely young woman. This is such an inspired piece for me, quiet and yet eloquent.

Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart by Sir William Orpen
Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, 1919

An example of Orpen's military portraiture, this is a stark portrait of a Lieutenant-General veteran who fought bravely and survived multiple gunshot wounds and a plane crash. Orpen's portrait is sincere, real and unpatriotic, portraying a man who saw more than most soldiers of his era. Orpen manages to capture both vulnerability and strength can see it in his eye. Note the plain white scumbled background again. I like the blue-gray midtone of the jawline.

Sir William Orpen - Grace reading at Howth Bay
Grace reading at Howth Bay, early 1900's

I love this portrait of Orpen's wife. Loose, rich brushwork and a deceivingly complex palette of whites containing both warm and cool hues. That shadow on the rocks behind her is a warm, violet-colored tone that brings the whole painting together.

William Orpen The Mirror
The Mirror, 1900

I viewed this painting at the Tate Britain in London last year and was mesmerized by its stark simplicity. Note the intricate reflection in the curved mirror, as if Orpen is channeling Jan van Eyck. Orpen creates mood effortlessly and with little to say, except everything the subject is. Under his astute brush, the portrait is not merely to dignify or define a person...but to be with them. Feel their presence. Amen.


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