Begorrathon 2017: William Orpen


The National Gallery of Ireland is currently undergoing a huge renovation, meaning that the majority of its collection is not open to the public. So you might have to wait a while to see the Gallery’s collection of paintings by William Orpen.

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Self-Portrait – St. Louis Art Museum 
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‘A Portuguese Lady’ – National Gallery of Ireland

Early twentieth century Irish art tends to be dominated by the figure of Jack B. Yeats. But Orpen is an equally important artist.

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Famous for portraits (including famously one of Winston Churchill), he was also a war artist in the trenches at the Somme in 1917.

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‘Dead Germans in a Trench’ Imperial War Museum 
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Zonnebeke – The Tate Gallery

He also painted a fair number of nudes.

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‘Early Morning’ – National Gallery of Ireland
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‘Sunlight’ – National Gallery of Ireland

For me, though, I will always be drawn to the National Gallery to see The Holy Well, Orpen’s scathing repudiation of a romanticised view of western Ireland and Celticism as ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ (a notion that was very en vogue at the time; see William Butler Yeats).

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It is not just the bold colours and the curious flatness to the painting’s perspective which attracts me, but also the figure dressed in peasant garb standing atop the well. That figure is Orpen himself, staring out at the viewer and openly mocking both the superstitousness of those around him and the idealised view of the west of Ireland.

You can see these paintings when the National Gallery in Dublin is finished its refurbishment. In the meantime, many of Orpen’s works are on display at the Imperial War Museum and the Tate.

 

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