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William Orpen was keenly interested in questions of identity and painted a remarkable series of self-portraits which often contain an element of parody. While he depicted himself on many occasions, Orpen disliked his own features and described himself as ugly.
Orpen showed remarkable talent from an early age. When he was just twelve he began classes at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where he excelled in drawing. In 1896 he attended the Slade School of Art in London and he lived and worked in the English capital for the remainder of his life, developing a highly successful and lucrative career as a portraitist.
Orpen had a remarkable facility for depicting textures and the surfaces of objects, evident in this self-portrait and in another work in the collection, Reflections: China and Japan. In the self-portrait Orpen uses to great effect the motifs of the mirror and a frame within a frame. He used mirrors in numerous works, including his painting of the Le Café Royal in London (Musée d’Orsay), the history painting, The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28 June 1919 (Imperial War Museum) and in other self-portraits. In one painting of Emily Scobel called The Mirror (Tate), the artist includes himself reflected in a circular mirror on the wall, a device borrowed from The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck in the National Gallery, London.
The Hugh Lane Gallery self-portrait features a mirror propped on a mantelpiece in the artist’s studio with painting materials in front. The same mirror appears in Myself and Venus (Carnegie Museum of Art) and in the portrait known as Leading the Life in the West (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In those two paintings the room is lit by large windows behind the figure, and various pieces of correspondence are tucked behind the frame of the mirror. In the Dublin painting the room is in shadow and the mirror’s frame appears closer to the edge of the painting, which when seen in its gold frame, adds to the visual complexity of the frame within a frame.
Orpen painted himself wearing a large hat, standing in front of a canvas with palette and brushes in hand. His body is seen from the side, facing towards the left of the painting, and his head is turned towards the viewer. He used this dramatic pose frequently in his self-portraits. He sometimes depicted himself in costume and here he could be seen to be performing the role of the artist. In other works he adopts a more deliberately constructed character, such as a game-hunter in The Dead Ptarmigan (NGI) or a jockey in The Baldoyle Steeplechaser (National Museum, Stockholm). In these works in particular he plays with Irish stereotypes.
While his career developed in London, Orpen maintained links with Ireland through his influential role as a part-time teacher at the Metropolitan School of Art. He contributed to exhibitions in Ireland and took summer holidays with his family at Howth, north of Dublin. Orpen created a strong figurative tradition in twentieth century Irish art, based on life drawing and craft, which continued until the 1950s.
Orpen was a close friend of gallery founder Hugh Lane who commissioned a number of portraits from him for the new gallery. Orpen helped Lane organise, and was represented in, the important exhibition of Irish painting that Lane instigated at the Guildhall Art Gallery, London, in 1904. The pair also travelled together to Paris and Madrid, when Lane began his purchase of French impressionist and other nineteenth century masterpieces to establish Dublin's municipal gallery that today bears his name. Orpen celebrated Lane's acquisition of modern French masters in the painting Homage to Manet, 1909 (Manchester City Art Gallery), which also features the same statue of Venus that is so prominent in Portrait of the Artist. Lane and a group of his supporters are shown gathered in Lane’s house with Édouard Manet's painting of Eva Gonzales (National Gallery London, Sir Hugh Lane Bequest 1917) on the wall and the .Lane had recently bought the Manet, which was It was kept for a time in Orpen's Chelsea studio before it was sent to Dublin for the opening of the gallery.