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Ireland has artists, too

A sketch by Sir William Orpen, Irish.
A sketch by Sir William Orpen, Irish.
Watercolor and graphite, on cream wove paper 768 x 530 mm Signed lower left, in graphite: "Orpen" Olivia Shaler Swan Memorial Collection, 1933.499

Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen. Who among us has heard of him?

I never had until I decided to look for something different to write about for this column. I thought about Ireland, land of my ancestors, and the Art Institute of Chicago, land of my former job. There must be a harmonic convergence of the two given the scope of the museum's collection and the artyness in general of the Emerald Isle, I thought. Ireland is, of course, well-known for its literary tradition. Who hasn't heard of Joyce, Shaw or Wilde? But, with a country so beautiful and green, there has to be artists, too. Right? And if there are good ones, they must have something at the Art Institute. Right? Indeed, that is right.

I discovered Sir William Orpen (1878-1931), who was known primarily as a portrait painter for the well-to-do in his day, has several pencil, ink and watercolor sketches in the Prints and Drawings department of the museum. Now, the unfortunate thing is they are not on display, and given the lack of a preponderance of Irish art history specialists in this country, probably never will be. Although the AIC has so much stuff that they do find it necessary to rotate works from the back rooms to the public areas occasionally. But, not too much too often. After all, they aren't likely to put anything famous in the back room. But, I think Prints and Drawings has more room to experiment. So maybe some day, Orpen will turn up.

There is one work of Orpen's called Two Nudes, apparently of a mother and daughter, that would be particularly nice to see hanging on a wall. A child, possibly in embarrassment, has her back to the viewer and her arms wrapped tightly around the mother's waist, who has her hands on the girl's arms. Both are natural and unadorned with sentimentality. Orpen's sketches seemed to capture the essence of the subjects, giving the viewer pause to reflect more deeply. His portraits, much sought after by the subjects and the public, are now perceived as shallow, although very well-done. Apparently, Orpen's time as a painter of dead soldiers and the carnage of violence begat by World War I, soured him. His portraits were done mechanically. He had lost something, like so many had, in the war. He died at only 53.

Orpen's success even today can still be measured in dollars. On 9 May 2010, a painting of Orpen's mistress, Yvonne Aubicque, was featured on BBC1's "Antiques Roadshow". The owner believed it to be a copy of an original in the Imperial War Museum. It turned out to be a "copy" painted by Orpen himself and estimated to be worth £250,000.


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