Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Boy seeking alms 1782c.

John Opie RA (1761-1807)

Portrait of a Boy seeking alms, John Opie
Oil on canvas
18th Century
36 x 28 inches 91.4 x 71.1cm
The Earls of Sutherland Dunrobin Castle By family descent till 2004
Possibly Royal Academy 1782 no.384 ''A Beggar''
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This affecting genre painting of a child holding out his hat for alms is unsurprisingly one of John Opie's finest works coming, as it does, from the ownership of his esteemed patron the Duke of Sutherland, in whose family it remained till earlier this year. It demonstrates the instinctive grasp of chiaroscuro, the feeling for the textural possibilities of oil paint that caused the self-taught ''Cornish Wonder'' to explode like a meteor over the London art world of the early 1780s and so impressed Sir Joshua Reynolds – the best of whose child portraits this closely resembles – that he considered him to be ''like Caravaggio and Velasquez in one.''1 Opie''s innate sympathy with his subject, his unpretentious style and his early experience in painting vagrants and country people in his native Cornwall raise works such as this far above the level of costume piece and clichι and are studies in humanity.

It is not known for certain whom Opie used as his model for the child mendicant in this painting. Plainly Opie painted from the local people around his native St Agnes in Cornwall, and would, like most painters have used as models anyone who took his eye as unusual or especially suggestive as a subject. But again like most painters his most reliable child models would have been drawn from his family and immediate circle. A portrait in Tate Britain of Master Edward Opie shows the painter's nephew in c.1788 looking about twelve years old. His titian hair, mouth and arched eyebrows all find a strong echo in the intense face of the Boy Seeking Alms and it may be quite likely that William Opie was his uncle''s model for the painting, which would accord with a subject who appears to be perhaps six or seven years old.

When John Opie reached London in 1781, under the tutelage of his friend the poet William Wolcot, known as ''Peter Pindar'', he had already established himself as a portraitist with a number of west country clients, particularly in his native Cornwall.

Some of these early portraits were unremarkable affairs (for example William Clark of Buckland-Tout-Saints Bonhams Knightsbridge February 10th 2004 lot 174), 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 congnoscenti of the capital. Reynolds''s judgment quoted above made Northcote to whom it was given fear for the practice that he had hoped to inherit from his master, but like most contemporaries was too impressed by Opie''s work to be distracted by petty rivalry or jealousy. 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 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 chiaro scuro 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''2 to make a society portraitist his success such as that with Sir Joshua opened further and greater doors. Through the influence of Mrs Boscawen he painted the royal friend and confidante Mrs Delany, whose portrait in a frame designed by Horace Walpole hung in the royal bedchamber.'' 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 Mrs 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.''3

In the same year he was summoned to give an account of himself and his works to the King, 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.''4, 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 one hundred and forty three pictures. The majority of these were portraits, although subject pictures such as the present painting of a child were also much in evidence, as well as eighteen large historical or literary subjects, including the Assassination of James I of Scotland I 1786 and the famous Death of Rizzio 1787 (both Corporation of London, Guildhall). During this period Opie painted the portrait of Dr Samuel Johnson, for which Johnson sat in 1783 (examples Dr Johnson's House, London; Historical Portraits, London). This superbly characterful and unpretentious work demonstrates how exactly painter and sitter were made for each other, and how Opie's long experience of painting the fiercely proud but unpolished inhabitants of his native Cornwall might have prepared him for painting the best portrait of the shambling lexicographer, and how best of all painters to whom Johnson sat Opie had the most sympathetic understanding of his character.

The period of the early 1780s dates the most successful of Opie''s exercises in rural genre. It is immediately apparent that for him – as to a lesser degree for Gainsborough – they are far more a study approaching social realism rather than in a quaint rusticism aimed at an increasingly bourgeois market. Both A School (exh. RA 1784 Loyd Collection) and The Peasant''s Family (Tate Gallery) treat the rural poor with a heroic dignity worthy, particularly in the latter case, or Ribera or the brothers Le Nain. 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.''5 The seriousness of Opie''s intention at this time is a remarkable contrast with the work of his contemporaries – consider, for example Sir William Beechey''s Children of Sir John Ford relieving a beggar boy in distress (exh. RA 1793) – in its honesty, lack of digestible, middle-class ''moral'', and true understanding of the character of children. It is no surprise that around the date of the present picture, Opie was commissioned to produce a series of four portraits of the children of the Duke of Argyll, although when Waterhouse6 described this series as ''the most attractive of Opie's portraits of children'' he may not have been aware of the present portrait.

1.Dictionary of National Biography quoting Northcote's Life of Reynolds
quoted in J. Jope Rogers Opie and his works London and Truro 1878 pp.19 – 20
2.Letter no.2117 Vol 8. Cunningham''s edition of the Letters of Horace Walpole 1858 (in Jope Rogers op. cit. p.21)
Jope Rogers 1878 p.22
3.Quoted in Ellis Waterhouse British Eighteenth Century Painters Antiques Collectors Clb 1981 p262
4.loc. cit.
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