'Old Ireland and Himself': William Orpen and the Conflicts of Irish Identity

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Abstract: The Irish painter William Orpen (1878-1931), defined here as Ireland's most 'Spanish' painter, was out of fashion for fifty years after his death; but he has recently been dramatically revalued, with his works fetching huge prices in salerooms and an unprecedentedly large exhibition of his work being mounted in London and subsequently Dublin. Best known for his Edwardian portraits and his devastating paintings of the First World War, he also produced a series of allegorical paintings of his native Ireland. These are discussed in this article, and linked to his admiration for J.M.Synge, his dislike of clericalism and repression in Irish life, and his celebration of sensuality. The same themes lie behind 'Homage to Manet', a celebrated group portrait which includes the Irish novelist George Moore and the art collector Hugh Lane --a close friend of Orpen's. Orpen knew other figures of the cultural Revival, and his relation to them is discussed; as is the conflict of identity he experienced (like other middle-class Irish Protestants) when the radicalisation of Irish politics and the outbreak of the First World War put a new strain on the allegiances of people who had previously thought of themselves as both 'British' and 'Irish'. After the trauma of the War, and Irish separation, Orpen opted for Britain; but, it is argued, he was closer to elements of the Irish cultural revival, and more involved with Irish politics and Irish history, than is usually accepted.

Key Words: William Orpen, Stories of Old Ireland and Myself, Irish Protestant, cultural Revival, Irish identity.


The painter William Orpen seems an apposite subject for the first issue of a new Spanish journal of Irish studies. He has recently been re-valued as not only a great Edwardian portrait painter but also the creator of an astonishing series of haunting and apocalyptic scenes of war, which dominated the large exhibition shown at the Imperial War Museum and later the National Gallery of Ireland in the spring and summer of 2005; he has, as will be seen, been claimed by both Britain and Ireland. But he also painted in a distinctly European tradition, and was above all influenced by Velasquez and Goya. Many of his portraits and genre paintings contain references to the former (a portrait of the artist William Nicolson's family is a direct homage to 'Las Meninas' --a painting that exerted on Orpen a mesmeric influence, as it also did upon Picasso); and his brother-in-law William Rothenstein wrote one of the first influential critical studies of Goya in English (1900), which Orpen read closely. (1) A turning point in his own artistic odyssey came when he visited Madrid with the Irish art dealer, collector and connoisseur Hugh Lane; the Prado collection introduced him to the dark side of Goya, and the influence comes strongly through his paintings of wartime devastation a decade later. [See Plate no 1, 'The Madwoman of Douai'] The influence of Ribera and the Seville school is also marked in Orpen's early work. His later oeuvre, in its starkness, its blackness, its angry interrogations of religiosity, marks him as the most Spanish of Irish painters.

His Irishness became something of an issue when the catalogue for the 2005 exhibition first appeared; on the cover Orpen was described as 'one of the great British artists' of the early twentieth century, which ruffled some feathers at the National Gallery of Ireland. Orpen, it appears, is once again Irish. For many years after his death in 1931 he was out of fashion: seen as an over-privileged wunderkind, who inherited Sargent's mantle as a painter of 'swagger portraits' for London's elite, made a fortune, lived immorally (some of his greatest portraits were of his mistresses), declined into vulgarity with his savage war paintings of 1917-19, and drank himself to death aged only fifty-two. Now that rich Irish collectors are prepared to pay well over a million euros for an Orpen painting, his stock is high once more and he is once again claimed for Ireland. …


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