William Orpen

di Paul Jeromack

My favorite ‘In Focus’ room in the newly-installed European Paintings Galleries is “The Artists Studio”- it is certainly the most audacious, featuring contemporary and recently-acquired masterpieces, and surprises from the storerooms that have not been exhibited in nearly a century. This is perhaps my favorite, and I screamed when I saw it was up: “OH MY GOD THE ORPEN!” The presently underrated Irishman Sir William Orpen (1878-1931) was perhaps the most acclaimed and popular portrait painter in Edwardian England, though his most compelling snd varied works are his self-portraits. This “Living the Life in the West” (c. 1910) is described on the Met website: This self-portrait,…..refers to Orpen’s life as a young artist in the West End of London. Orpen stands reflected full-length in a mirror in his studio, wearing a bowler hat and holding gloves and a riding crop. 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.” Donated to the Met by the artists dealer George F. Baker in 1914, it has been seldom on view (I last saw it about ten years ago) and is perhaps the most important painting by the artist in an American collection (I welcome notes here from people who know others here). A fresh retrospective is much needed (maybe one devoted to just his self-portraits). More observations on other paintings in this new installation to follow over the next few days ….

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