Scroll down
sleeping girl by John Opie

John Opie

(1761-1807)
John Opie was a portrait painter who was famous for his dramatic use of chiaroscuro.

Biography

‘I have called again on Reynolds with a pair of John Opie’s pictures, the portrait of a Jew[1] and a Cornish Beggar, on which he expressed surprize at performances by a boy in a country village containing excellences that would not disgrace the pencil of...

John Opie was born into a working-class family in rural Cornwall. Although he showed early signs of promise as an artist, he was encouraged to follow his father into the family carpentry business. He was famously ‘discovered’ by the prominent poet and satirist John Wolcot – himself an amateur artist – who bought Opie out of his apprenticeship and toured him around the West Country, introducing him to possible patrons - many of whom succumbed to Wolcot’s charm and Opie’s brush.

By the time Opie reached London in 1781 he had, with Wolcot’s help, established himself as a portrait painter with a number of wealthy west country clients. Some of these early portraits were unremarkable affairs and would not have presaged anything other than a provincial celebrity, but his facility with a particular kind of subject picture, the sympathetic study of country people, such as A Sleeping Girl, earned him considerable fame and respect. His paintings were executed in a chiaroscuro technique that reminded contemporaries of Rembrandt or Ribera and guaranteed him a good reputation among the cognoscenti of the capital.

One of Opie’s earliest supporters in London was none other than Sir Joshua Reynolds. In a letter of spring 1782, Wolcot describes Sir Joshua’s exposure to Opie’s work:

‘I have called again on Reynolds with a pair of John Opie’s pictures, the portrait of a Jew[1] and a Cornish Beggar, on which he expressed surprize at performances by a boy in a country village containing excellences that would not disgrace the pencil of Caravaggio. Opie’s knowledge of chiaroscuro without ever having seen a painting of the dark masters, drew from his eye a sort of wonder.’[2]

Read full biography

Opie was born into a working-class family in rural Cornwall. Although he showed early signs of promise as an artist, he was encouraged to follow his father into the family carpentry business. He was famously ‘discovered’ by the prominent poet and satirist John Wolcot – himself an amateur artist – who bought Opie out of his apprenticeship and toured him around the West Country, introducing him to possible patrons - many of whom succumbed to Wolcot’s charm and Opie’s brush.  

 

By the time Opie reached London in 1781 he had, with Wolcot’s help, established himself as a portrait painter with a number of wealthy west country clients. Some of these early portraits were unremarkable affairs and would not have presaged anything other than a provincial celebrity, but his facility with a particular kind of subject picture, the sympathetic study of country people, such as Sleeping Girlearned him considerable fame and respectHis paintings were executed in a chiaroscuro technique that reminded contemporaries of Rembrandt or Ribera and guaranteed him a good reputation among the cognoscenti of the capital. 

 

One of Opie’s earliest supporters in London was none other than Sir Joshua Reynolds. In a letter of spring 1782, Wolcot describes Sir Joshua’s exposure to Opie’s work: 
 
‘I have called again on Reynolds with a pair of John Opie’s pictures, the portrait of a Jew1 and a Cornish Beggar, on which he expressed surprize at performances by a boy in a country village containing excellences that would not disgrace the pencil of Caravaggio. Opie’s knowledge of chiaroscuro without ever having seen a painting of the dark masters, drew from his eye a sort of wonder.’2 
 
Despite Wolcot’s suspicion that Opie was ‘too fond of imitating course expression’3 to make a society portraitist, his success with Reynolds opened further and greater doors. Through the influence of the Boscawen family, he painted the royal friend and confidante Mary Delany, whose portrait in a frame designed by Horace Walpole hung in the royal bedchamber.4 The approval of the garrulous Walpole may also have proved a decisive factor in his success, since he was to a degree arbiter in questions of connoisseurship in late eighteenth century society. Of Delany’s portrait by Opie he says: 
 
There is a new genius, one Opy, a Cornish lad of nineteen, who has taught himself to colour in a strong, bold, masterly style by studying nature, and painting from beggars and poor children.’5 
 
In the same year he was summoned to give an account of himself and his works to King George III, who was, despite the slur usually made against the Hanoverian monarchs, a keen enthusiast of painting. On that occasion the pictures that Opie showed are a good guide to the genres in which his talent was most effective at that date. In addition to the pictures of a Jew and a Beggar with his dog, Opie shows two further pictures of rustic subjects, described by Wolcot in a letter of March 11th 1782 as ‘The Old Kneebone of Helstone’, and ‘Mat. Trevenan.’6, presumably both paintings that Opie had completed in Cornwall before his arrival in London the previous year. In that same year Opie exhibited five paintings at the Royal Academy, which may have included some of these paintings and others in the same vein, being An Old Man’s HeadA Country Boy and GirlBoy and DogAn Old Woman and A Beggar. 
 
These years of the 1780s were when Opie enjoyed his greatest fame in London, although his career continued steadily through the succeeding decades: in 1786 he was made a full member of the Royal Academy, where he exhibited a total of one hundred and forty three pictures throughout his life. The majority of these were portraits, although subject pictures such as Sleeping Girl (Philip Mould & Co.) were also much in evidence, as well as eighteen large historical or literary subjects, including the Assassination of James I of Scotland (1786) and the famous Death of Rizzio (1787).7 During this period Opie also painted Dr Samuel Johnson, for which Johnson sat in 1783.8  

 

Philip Mould & Company have bought and sold numerous important portraits and subject pictures by John Opie over the last thirty-five years. One of the finest being The Beggar Boy acquired by Falmouth Art Gallery in 2004, and A Sleeping Girl.  

Receive information about exhibitions, news & events.

We will process the personal data you have supplied in accordance with our privacy policy. You can unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time by clicking the link in any emails.
Close

Basket

No items found
Close

Your saved list

This list allows you to enquire about a group of works.
No items found
Close
Mailing list signup

Get exclusive updates from Philip Mould Gallery

Close

Sign up for updates

Make an Enquiry

Receive newsletters

In order to respond to your enquiry, we will process the personal data you have supplied in accordance with our privacy policy. You can unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time by clicking the link in any emails.

Close
Search
Close
Close
500 Years of British Art