This is one of the finest works by John Opie to appear on the market in recent years and is an unparalleled example of his highly sensitive approach to subject painting.

John Opie was born into a working-class family in rural Cornwall, and although he showed early signs of artistic promise, he was encouraged to follow his father into the family carpentry business. He was then famously ‘discovered’ by the prominent poet and satirist John Wolcott (1738-1819) – 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 Wolcott’s charm and Opie’s brush.

By the time Opie reached London in 1781 he had, with Wolcott’s help, established himself as portraitist with a number of west country clients, particularly in his native Cornwall. Some of these early portraits were unremarkable affairs and would not have presaged anything other...

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This is one of the finest works by John Opie to appear on the market in recent years and is an unparalleled example of his highly sensitive approach to subject painting.

John Opie was born into a working-class family in rural Cornwall, and although he showed early signs of artistic promise, he was encouraged to follow his father into the family carpentry business. He was then famously ‘discovered’ by the prominent poet and satirist John Wolcott (1738-1819) – 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 Wolcott’s charm and Opie’s brush.

By the time Opie reached London in 1781 he had, with Wolcott’s help, established himself as portraitist with a number of west country clients, particularly in his native Cornwall. 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, executed in a chiaroscuro technique that reminded contemporaries of Rembrandt or Ribera, guaranteed a greater reputation among the cognoscenti of the capital.

One of Opie’s earliest supporters in London was none other than Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), president of the Royal Academy. 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]

Despite Wolcot’s suspicion that Opie was ‘too fond of imitating course expression’[3] to make a society portraitist, his success such as that with Reynolds opened further and greater doors. Through the influence of the Boscawen family he painted the royal friend and confidante Mary Delany (1700-1788), whose portrait in a frame designed by Horace Walpole (1717-1797) 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 (1738-1820), 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 Head, A Country Boy and Girl, Boy and Dog, An 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 the present painting 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 painted a portrait of Dr Samuel Johnson, for which Johnson sat in 1783.[8]

The present work was evidently influenced by Reynolds’ The Sleeping Girl (fig.1) which was painted in 1790 and bought by Wolcott for his personal collection.[9] Opie presumably saw the work soon after it was acquired and before Wolcott took it to Cornwall, where, according to the Opie scholar Ada Earland, he displayed it alongside several copies after Reynolds at his house in Truro.[10] Wolcott was clearly entranced by Reynold’s poetic depiction of the subject and pasted the following quotation from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar on the reverse: ‘Enjoy the honey-heavy-dew of slumber:/ Thou hast no figures, nor no fantasies,/ Wbich busy care draws in the brains of men;/ Therefore thou sleep’st so sound’.[11]

Opie’s treatment of the composition is ambitious in terms of scale and sensitivity. Painted on a 50 x 40-inch canvas, Opie has allowed for the inclusion of an autumnal forest setting and a small cottage in the background. By doing so, he has transformed the composition from a simple study of a sleeping girl into a more dramatic ‘subject painting’ with a narrative revolving around a country girl taking a rest as she goes about her daily tasks.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, who portrayed rural subject’s in a patronising manner aimed at an increasingly bourgeois market, Opie has portrayed his subject here with dignity and worth. This distinction was apparent to critics at the time, one of whom, in a famous remark, observed that ‘could people in vulgar life afford to pay for pictures, Opie would be their man.’[12]

[1] This is perhaps the work titled The Old Jew which is now in the collection at Penlee House Gallery and Museum, Penzance [PEZPH:2016.1]

[2] Cunningham, P. (eds.) (1858) Letters of Horace Walpole. London: Richard Bentley. Vol 8, letter no. 2117. Quoted in Jope Rogers, J. (1878) Opie and His Woks, London and Truro: Paul and Dominic Colnaghi and Co., Netherton and Worth, p. 21.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The portrait of Mrs Delany is in the Royal Collection [RCIN 400965]

[5] Quoted in Waterhouse, E. (1981) British 18th Century Painters. Suffolk: Antique Collector’s Club, pp.261-2.

[6] Ibid. Old Kneebone of Helston is now in the collection at Penlee House Gallery and Museum, Penzance [PEZPH:2016.1]

[7] Now in the collection of the Corporation of London, Guildhall Art Gallery.

[8] A version of this portrait can be found in Dr Johnson’s House, London. Another was previously with Philip Mould & Company and is now in a private collection.

[9] Mannings, D. 2000. Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings. London and New Haven: Yale University Press, pp.532-533.

[10] Earland, A. 1911. John Opie and His Circle. London: Hutchinson & Co, p.12.

[11] Mannings, D. 2000. Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings. London and New Haven: Yale University Press, pp.532-533.

[12] Quoted in Waterhouse, E. (1981) British 18th Century Painters. Suffolk: Antique Collector’s Club, pp.261-2.

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